Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

The Moving to Opportunity Experiment: What Do Heterogeneous Estimates of the Effect of Moving Imply About Causes?


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In this article, I review the evidence presented by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz (2016) in their study of the long-term impact on earnings from moving out of public housing for children who participated in the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment. In the abstract they write: “We find that moving to a lower-poverty neighborhood when young (before age 13) increases college attendance and earnings and reduces single parenthood rates.” That statement is one of many suggesting a causal mechanism that having lower-poverty neighbors improves adult well-being for such children. I focus on the heterogeneity of results across the five experimental sites—Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—and conclude that granular scrutiny raises doubts about the claim that lower-poverty neighbors improves such outcomes for such children, particularly in light of the limited and statistically weak evidence upon which their conclusions are based. Such scrutiny does not deliver some alternate conclusion that had been overlooked. Rather, the scrutiny should lead us to admit that the MTO experiment has not as yet shed much light on the specific neighborhood factors that account for higher earnings among young children who moved.