Ben Carson, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has criticized federal efforts to desegregate America’s neighborhoods as “social engineering.”
In an op-ed last year, the retired neurosurgeon — who has no experience in urban development — compared the government’s attempts to integrate communities to the “failed social experiment” of mandated school busing.
But one such experiment that moved low-income families into wealthier neighborhoods resulted in much better lives for their children.
“The experiment that Ben Carson is talking about has already been run, and the results are good,” said Brendan O’Flaherty, an economist at Columbia University. “If it were a drug, it would be a billion-dollar blockbuster drug.”
Beginning in 1994, the federal government offered randomly selected families living in public-housing projects the opportunity to move into wealthier neighborhoods.
More than 4,000 signed up for the vouchers, in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Only a portion were picked to move to neighborhoods not stricken by poverty. The others were either offered standard subsidized housing or stayed put in public housing.
Researchers followed the families, including their children, for 15 years to answer the question: Does living in more prosperous neighborhoods make a difference in the long-term economic prospects of low-income children and their families?
If it were up to Carson, the answer would never be known. Raised in Detroit by a mother who was illiterate and a domestic worker, Carson dismisses such government intervention.
“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse,” Carson wrote in a Washington Times op-ed. “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous.”
Carson specifically criticized the Obama administration’s housing rules issued in 2015 to help cities better adhere to the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The law prohibited housing discrimination and required communities to promote fair housing.
But in reality, there was little oversight and guidance for communities. Many simply did not submit their analyses of the impediments to fair housing as often as they were supposed to, said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
To qualify for HUD grants under Obama’s new rules, communities were required to seek out pockets of segregation and poverty; study how low-quality schools, limited jobs and high crime came to be; and put forth remedies.
Carson was not the only one to object to the new guidelines. Several communities revolted by rejecting the federal funds. The mayor of Castle Rock, Colo., Paul Donahue, wrote in an April letter that “HUD on a whim could force us to build low-income, government subsidized housing into our neighborhoods if HUD decides we aren’t racially balanced enough.”
The Republican Party platform, adopted before its national convention in July, accused the Obama administration of trying to seize control of local zoning.
“It threatens to undermine zoning laws in order to socially engineer every community in the country,” the platform says.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) had introduced a bill in July 2015 that would have denied federal funding for implementing the Obama regulations. He was backed by his GOP colleagues Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Marco Rubio of Florida.
“Every American should be free to choose where to live, and every community should be free to zone its neighborhoods and compete for new residents according to its distinct values,” Lee said in a statement at the time.
The Senate blocked Lee’s measure in May.
That brings us back to the question: Do government incentives to desegregate housing work?
More than two decades after five cities participated in the national experiment known as “Moving to Opportunity,” many of the children whose families used government vouchers to move from high-poverty housing projects to wealthier neighborhoods are now young adults.
The latest national study based on the experiment, released in August 2015 by Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, shows that children in these families ended up attending college at higher rates and are earning substantially more money than their peers who stayed in the housing projects. They also live in better neighborhoods as adults and are less likely to become single parents. The effect is only seen among children who were younger than 13 when the families moved.
The researchers concluded that giving families in high-poverty housing projects incentives to move to wealthier neighborhoods could stem the intergenerational poverty cycle and ultimately benefit taxpayers.
Earlier studies analyzing data from the same long-term experiment also showed favorable impacts on the health of families who moved, including reductions in anxiety.
The Moving to Opportunity project sprang from an earlier federal program created as a result of lawsuits against the Chicago Housing Authority and HUD. The lawsuits, starting in 1966, alleged that HUD funded the deliberate segregation of African American families, violating their civil rights.
Part of the settlement involved moving black families to affluent white suburbs, resulting in safer communities, higher-quality schools, and better job opportunities for most.