Effects of a Housing Policy Experiment on Youth Behavioral Problems
This study is the only available large-scale study that has randomly assigned individuals to receive different neighborhood contexts, to support strong causal inferences of how neighborhoods shape mental health.
Adverse neighborhood contexts predict poor mental health and externalizing behavior among adolescents, and the vast racial inequalities in neighborhood environment may play an important role in creating and maintaining racial disparities in health. However, since most research has been observational rather than experimental, it is potentially biased. Neighborhood-health research typically models point-in-time exposures of neighborhoods, in lieu of understanding neighborhood exposure trajectories, and insufficient attention has been paid to the specific contexts navigated by minority, impoverished, adolescents. This study proposes a secondary analysis of data from a social experiment of voluntary neighborhood relocation using Section 8 Housing Vouchers in 5 cities to test how and why random assignment of an offer to move to a low-poverty neighborhood unexpectedly adversely affected behavioral problems for boys over a 4-7 year period, and to inform the program’s opposite gender effects on mental health. We will complement the existing data with additional neighborhood-level data collection to enrich the dataset. This study is the only available large-scale study that has randomly assigned individuals to receive different neighborhood contexts, to support strong causal inferences of how neighborhoods shape mental health. Prior study analyses have not integrated theoretical understanding of adolescent development to motivate empirical analyses or probed why neighborhood context may increase behavioral problems of boys, whether certain subgroups are more likely to be affected than others by neighborhood relocation, or whether there are important developmentally-sensitive periods when exposure to neighborhood deprivation may be especially influential on youth mental health. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of investigators, including fields of social epidemiology, psychiatric epidemiology, developmental psychology, demography, public policy, statistics, and medicine. This project will capitalize on an experimental design, will innovatively apply causal methods to understand mediation, and will model time-varying neighborhood exposures, which will inform relevant early life course developmental timing of neighborhood exposure periods for adolescent well-being. Because of the rigorous experimental design, this project can provide strong policy-relevant evidence on the mechanisms by which social policies like Section 8 housing vouchers may influence population health and mental health.