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Giving poor families more choices in where to live can greatly improve health

When low-income Americans are concentrated in substandard homes in struggling or violent neighborhoods, it has tangible consequences for well-being. Research confirms that moving families into less segregated neighborhoods improves overall health, and some communities are giving families vouchers to relocate. Special correspondent Sarah Varney of Kaiser Health News reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first- the links between housing and health.

    A recent study found that African-Americans who move to less segregated neighborhoods see significant improvements in their blood pressure. Previous research has also shown that children who move to more affluent neighborhoods are much healthier.

    Across the country, local leaders are responding to these findings by giving poor families more choices in where they live.

    Sarah Varney begins our report in Saint Louis.

    This story was produced in collaboration with our partner Kaiser Health News.

  • Sarah Varney:

    It's been three years since civil unrest erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

    But for one family, those turbulent days have led to much quieter nights. Jennifer Cummings moved in June into this government-subsidized apartment in the upscale Saint Louis suburb of Chesterfield, with her daughters Simone and Samara.

    The tidy rental is a calm safe haven for the working single mother, closer to her job and better schools for her kids. It's a world away from her old neighborhood near Ferguson.

  • Jennifer Cummings:

    They stole my children's clothes, shoes, jewelry.

  • Sarah Varney:

    During the four years she lived here, burglars broke in four times, including last Thanksgiving. And both Cummings' brother and the father of her children were shot and killed nearby.

  • Jennifer Cummings:

    I actually had someone drill nails in the door just to prevent people from coming in on the — on me and my girls while we were sleeping.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Among the thorny questions a state-appointed panel known as the Ferguson Commission grappled with in the months following Michael Brown's death was the region's long history of housing segregation. Black residents in Saint Louis remain largely concentrated in poor and violent neighborhoods, often in substandard homes.

    Those conditions fuel depression, childhood asthma, diabetes and other health problems. One study, for example, found one in three children who live in high-poverty areas had elevated lead in their blood, which can permanently affect their development.

    Dr. Craig Pollack, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins, says moving families to wealthier zip codes can improve their health, their education, even how long they live.

  • Dr. Craig Pollack:

    For adults, we know that having the chance to move to an opportunity neighborhood, a low-poverty neighborhood, is linked with having a lower chance of getting diabetes, as well as a lower chance of being obese.

    We also know that for kids that have the chance to move to opportunity neighborhoods at a young age, they tend to have higher incomes later on in life. They're also more likely to attend college.

  • Sarah Varney:

    In Saint Louis, Reverend Starsky Wilson, a Ferguson Commission co-chair, says it became clear the housing authority need to intervene directly to allow black residents like Jennifer Cummings to overcome historical barriers designed to keep them out of white suburbs.

  • Rev. Starsky Wilson:

    If we know that housing is the cornerstone for the building of wealth, and that wealth and health are connected, then we have got to say that these things that have been orchestrated around community development, or the lack thereof, have absolutely decimated the health of black and brown communities.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Amid continued protests in Saint Louis earlier this year, the so-called Housing Mobility Program, paid for with federal dollars, began moving the first families who volunteered.

    This may be a new effort here in the Saint Louis region to help struggling families change what can feel like preordained outcomes for their lives. But it's an approach that's already shown some success in other racially segregated cities, including Baltimore, Dallas and Chicago.

  • Nick Mathiowdis:

    The weather couldn't be worse, but I appreciate you making the trek out here.

  • Sarah Varney:

    On a blustery day in a public housing complex south of Chicago, an overflow crowd has come to learn how to sign up for a housing voucher program from counselor Nick Mathiowdis.

  • Nick Mathiowdis:

    All of you are thinking about moving. All of you guys have expressed interest in moving to a better neighborhood. What's important to you in your next community?

  • Sarah Varney:

    It had long been the case that federal rental subsidies used by some two million U.S. households didn't take into account the higher rents needed to live in more affluent neighborhoods. That meant poor families stayed put.

    In 2016, President Obama ordered the nation's largest cities to raise rental subsidies for voucher holders who wanted to move into so-called areas of opportunity, zip codes with low crime, high employment rates and excellent schools.

    President Trump has since rolled back the mandatory rule, but Cook County and the city of Chicago are doing it anyway, in large part because of the promising health effects.

  • Nick Mathiowdis:

    It shouldn't come as a surprise, if you are living in a low-crime neighborhood, coming from a high-crime neighborhood, your stress levels are going to go down. You don't have to worry about your kids being bullied on the streets. You don't have to worry about your kids being recruited by a gang.

  • Sarah Varney:

    These information sessions are the first step for people like Tinisha Jones.

  • Tinisha Jones:

    I'm living in Roseland. And I have been there for three years. Everybody on my block have gotten killed.

  • Nick Mathiowdis:

    Yes, it's time to get out.

  • Tinisha Jones:

    Got to go.

  • Sarah Varney:

    But uprooting their families is a big decision. And counselors meet one-on-one to consider practical concerns.

  • Nick Mathiowdis:

    So what's child care look like for your 2-year-old?

  • Tinisha Jones:

    I utilize family, for the most part.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Families that do sign up often move to Chicago's affluent northwest suburbs, where a counselor helps each family settle in, meet their new landlord, and find the rhythms of their new life.

    It's a new life in Chicago's prosperous suburbs that seems almost unimaginable to Tinisha Jones, who wakes each morning on Chicago's South Side.

  • Tinisha Jones:

    All of Illinois can't be like this.

  • Sarah Varney:

    When you imagine moving to a place like Hoffman Estates or Schaumburg or one of these other areas, what do you imagine for your kids? What do you imagine your life will be like there?

  • Tinisha Jones:

    Oh, man, freedom. Kids being able to be kids. Go outside and play, and me not looking out the window or worrying about if there's going to be a drive-by or something dangerous to that effect.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Shanell Washington is now resettled in one of Chicago's upscale suburbs. Her son Timothy once had severe asthma that was triggered by mold in the carpet in her old shoddy apartment.

    There were other problems, too. She told her kids the gunshots they heard at night were fireworks. In their new neighborhood, Washington and her kids can play outside. And after living here for just a few months, Timothy's asthma has cleared up.

  • Shanell Washington:

    He just had a wellness checkup with his doctor a couple weeks ago, actually, and he's healthy, thank God.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Dr. Pollack says it's vital to measure health effects like these in a more concrete way. His research team in Baltimore is collecting air quality samples and cockroach and mouse allergens in the homes of families before and after they move, and then testing whether asthmatic children who move to new neighborhoods have fewer complications.

  • Dr. Craig Pollack:

    We have heard from a lot of families that their asthma symptoms are doing better, that their health is improved. I really think it's important to try to quantify this, to make that sure we're understanding kind of, what does an investment in housing and the opportunity to move to a different neighborhood mean for health?

  • Sarah Varney:

    But there are risks to moving families out of these neighborhoods.

  • Jennifer Cummings:

    I'm really stressed out, especially just sitting in traffic.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Back in Saint Louis, Jennifer Cummings' new apartment is closer to her job and her older daughter's new school. But she hasn't been able to find affordable day care nearby for Simone.

    So, she spends hours driving back and forth in gridlock traffic. While the Ferguson Commission recommended better housing options for low-income families as one solution, some community activists like Tia Byrd say plucking families out of poor neighborhoods can fuel urban decay.

  • Tia Byrd:

    It adds to the mass vacancy that already happens because of just general disinvestment and lack of access to funding. And when we do that, you sort of develop this narrative that you can throw away a community and you throw away a neighborhood. And that's not fair to the people that want to stay.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Jennifer Cummings can understand that argument, but she says she would have done anything to give her children a better life than they were living just months ago.

  • Jennifer Cummings:

    I want them to know that there's something else out there better than what you see, you know, than what's around you, you know, what you have been through. I just want, you know, them to see and experience something better. And so I would do it all again.

  • Sarah Varney:

    Even if that means waking before dawn to drive across town, and doing it all again tomorrow.

    For the PBS NewsHour and Kaiser Health News, I'm Sarah Varney.

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