There is a naive belief among some advocates that if people just had more money, their problems would be solved. Yet the saying 'money does not solve everything' exists as a truism for good reason.

Less worry about basic needs is obviously good for society - in developing nations, farmers that were able to use science and technology to be competitive with Europe and America showed dramatic improvements for their own families and their communities - and once basic needs are met there is more time to focus on education and culture. In America, this was accomplished in the last century by providing cheap electricity for all.

But it doesn't apply in developed nations now. Poor children in America lead the country in bedroom televisions, for example, so basic needs are not the issue. And moving families out of high-poverty neighborhoods does not have the benefit people claim when they are forcing low-income housing in suburban neighborhoods.

It's just the opposite - a new analysis finds that, in boys forced to move, the impact is instead like they got post-traumatic stress disorder from going to war, with increased rates of depression and conduct disorder. Moving did, however, benefit girls, finds the paper in JAMA.

The results are a follow-up long-term analysis of families participating in the Moving to Opportunity residential-mobility demonstration sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Moving to Opportunity was designed to use housing vouchers to move families out of very distressed public housing projects into less disadvantaged neighborhoods with lower poverty and crime rates, with the goal of improving educational achievement and economic self-sufficiency.

Between 1994 and 1998 the HUD program enrolled 4,604 volunteer low-income public housing families in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York) and randomly assigned some but not others to receive housing vouchers.

A building in Chicago's Cabrini-Green project being demolished in 2011. Moving families out of high-poverty areas that are still home helped girls but was devastating for boys. Photo Credit: Photo by Jason Smith

The follow-up evaluations were conducted 10 to 15 years later, which meant participants who were in early childhood at the time of the randomization were in adolescence when researchers were evaluating long-term associations of the housing mobility program with mental disorders. 

The researchers found that girls whose families had the chance to move through Moving to Opportunity had much lower rates of major depression compared to the control group (6.5 percent versus 10.9 percent) and conduct disorder (0.3 percent versus 2.9 percent). On the other hand, boys whose families had the chance to move through Moving to Opportunity had significantly elevated rates of major depression (7.1 percent vs. 3.5 percent) and elevated rates of PTSD (6.2 percent versus 1.9 percent, respectively) and conduct disorder (6.4 percent vs. 2.1 percent).

"Qualitative evidence suggested these differences were due to girls profiting more than boys from moving to better neighborhoods because of sex differences in both neighborhood experiences and in the social skills needed to capitalize on new opportunities presented by their improved neighborhoods," the study authors wrote.

"The major surprise was the size of the findings," said co-author Prof. Jens Ludwig, one of the study's authors and Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy at the University of Chicago. "Moving out of high-poverty areas had very different effects on boys and girls, and both effects are large. For boys, the increase in PTSD is comparable to what you see from combat exposure among military veterans, while the reduction in depression among girls is equally massive."

For Ludwig, the study reinforces the need for scientific-based evidence for public policy decisions. "This work demonstrates that the effects of housing mobility interventions are more complicated than one might expect," he said. "Equally important, the project shows the importance of the randomized experimental design of Moving to Opportunity for highlighting these effects, which had never before been detected by other research in this area."

Citation: Ronald C. Kessler, Greg J. Duncan, Lisa A. Gennetian, Lawrence F. Katz, Jeffrey R. Kling, Nancy A. Sampson, Lisa Sanbonmatsu, Alan M. Zaslavsky, Jens Ludwig, 'Associations of Housing Mobility Interventions for Children in High-Poverty Neighborhoods With Subsequent Mental Disorders During Adolescence', JAMA. 2014;311(9):937-948. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.607. Source: University of Chicago