The Secret to Creating Opportunity Is Help

A team of esteemed researchers led by Raj Chetty recently set out to tackle a vexing question. Why, when offered housing vouchers, do so few low-income families use them to move to neighborhoods that offer them and their children better long-term odds of thriving? Instead, they tend to remain in neighborhoods where incomes are low and opportunity is thin.

The team, at an organization called Opportunity Insights, considered various explanations. Perhaps families receiving vouchers prefer to remain where they are. After all, they may enjoy proximity to family and friends, a convenient commute to work, or cheaper rent.

Another possibility is that they actually do not prefer to stay put. Maybe they would love to move to a different area, but they are stymied by the complexity of the search process, a lack of good information, or bias against them on the part of landlords.

In a randomized, controlled trial among recipients of housing vouchers in the Seattle and King County areas of Washington state, the researchers tested those two hypotheses. They found that not only are families open to moving to "higher opportunity" neighborhoods, but also that they eagerly do so and report higher satisfaction with where they live—when one particular factor is present. That factor is help.

The researchers provided three kinds of help to a group of more than 400 families who received housing vouchers:

  • Customized search assistance to locate desirable housing and to prepare applications.
  • Direct engagement with landlords to build relationships and expedite leasing hassles.
  • Short term financial assistance, for things like security deposits.

The help made a big difference. Compared to families that didn’t receive these interventions, many more families moved to neighborhoods associated with better long-term outcomes and earnings.

The study highlights the limits of policy as a single vehicle for creating opportunity. Housing policies to provide vouchers already existed and had existed for some time. But they didn’t really work. Don’t get me wrong: A good policy is better than no policy… or a bad policy. But without providing help to allow potential recipients to take advantage of the good policy, many goals cannot be achieved. That’s what this study demonstrates.

If you think about it, the same thing is true in education. In fact, choosing a school might not be much different than choosing a neighborhood. A recent study suggests that more privileged families leverage information about school performance from sources like GreatSchools to drive their enrollment decisions, leading to self-segregation. Does that mean information about school quality is bad or that GreatSchools is not a valuable tool? No, of course not. It means that those tools are not equally accessible to everyone. As in the housing study, many families who would find the information very useful could probably use some help accessing it. Very often, though, they aren’t getting it.

We often argue that states and school systems need to do a better job of measuring school performance and student outcomes, and provide more transparent information about those data points. That may well be true. But what good is capturing better information about school performance if parents can’t find or understand it?

If we approached education with the same mindset the folks at Opportunity Insights took to housing, we would probably pair families with advisors who could walk them through the data and help them use it to make decisions for their own children. If they were thrilled with how their school was doing, they might take pains not to move outside its zoning boundary. If they were disappointed, perhaps they would ask the principal for her plan to improve the school. Or they might move. But in the absence of a little help, they will probably do none of the above.

This is basically what we do at EdNavigator. In New Orleans, for instance, we have partnered with the local school district to ensure that families receive advice and assistance if their children’s school is closed, forcing them to choose another one. We will publish some lessons from that work in an upcoming paper. (Spoiler alert: When families receive help, they are much more likely to submit their school choice applications on time and land a seat in a stronger school.)

We cannot expect hardworking, busy families to navigate complex systems like housing and education on their own—and then shrug our shoulders when folks don’t “take advantage” of existing policies (or worse, claim these families must not care enough to bother). If we hope to build true opportunity, we need to rebalance our approach, and pair changes to education policy and practice with equal changes to how families are expected to navigate the system. One in the absence of the other just isn’t going to work.

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