When journalists and social scientists write about poverty, crime, race, and housing policy -- especially when they stir them together -- it is bound to provoke controversy. Journalist Hannah Rosin recently stirred up a hornet's next with her cover article, "American Murder Mystery," in the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine, arguing that two federal programs designed to give poor families more housing choices are responsible for a major increase in crime. She claimed to show that efforts to "deconcentrate" poor families (particularly families of color) out of high-poverty areas backfired by spreading crime into otherwise stable neighborhoods, using Memphis as an example, but generalizing about the entire country. Her larger point is that liberal do-gooders failed to anticipate the harmful consequences of their well-intentioned but naive policy ideas. Rosin's article has generated a lot of interest on the right-wing blogosphere and in the mainstream media.
Well, guess what? Rosin got her facts, analysis, and conclusion wrong. She not only got the facts-on-the-ground in Memphis wrong, but she also misled readers by generalizing from the Memphis example. She mischaracterized the housing programs and credited them with a much larger impact than they really have, given their small size. Professor Xavier de Souza Briggs (at MIT) and I pulled together some of the nation's leading housing and urban policy researchers and experts to examine Rosin's claims. Our response to her article, "Memphis Murder Mystery? No, Just Mistaken Identity," is now available on the National Housing Institute website.
In this election year, when the nation is in the middle of a sustained debate about the proper role of government in addressing social and economic problems, it is less than helpful when a respected magazine publishes such a misleading, irresponsible story. The leading housing researchers and experts who have signed this document -- which rebuts many of Rosin's major claims -- felt compelled to set the record straight. Rosin interviewed some of the experts who signed this document and drew on their research; some are even quoted in the article. The experts who drafted and endorsed this statement don't all agree with each other on every aspect of housing policy, but they do share a strong belief that public policy (and journalism about policy) should be guided by the facts and by rigorous research. In drafting this statement, we drew on the latest research about the Section 8, HOPE VI, and Moving to Opportunity programs, as well as data about poverty and crime, in order to examine Rosin's claims.
The controversy over Rosin's article is not simply about the causes of crime in Memphis, but also about how we formulate and evaluate policy in general and , in particular, policy to help address the dilemma of poverty in America. It is also about the use and abuse of social science research by the media. In offering a critique of Rosin's article, we hope to contribute to a spirited debate about these issues.
As we write in our article, academics and policymakers have learned a great deal from both the mistakes and the successes of anti-poverty programs, including those focused on high-poverty neighborhoods, since the 1960s. Housing policy is a vital piece of the agenda, but now more than ever, we understand why it can’t lift people out poverty on its own. We know that the best anti-poverty program is a good job. Full employment at living wages is the best solution to America’s poverty quagmire. We also need to invest in education and job training, to raise the minimum wage at least to the poverty level, to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit so it reaches more families, and to provide low-income parents with the support they need to enter the job market, such as child care and health insurance. Redoubled efforts to fight crime in the most violent neighborhoods, and to protect those places, which tend to be poor racial ghettos, from an utterly disproportionate share of our society’s environmental hazards, are vital too. Giving the poor a strong voice in the political arena -- through community organizations, unions, and other vehicles -- is also critical.
Section 8 vouchers, especially when tied to counseling for tenants and recruitment of landlords, can be an important tool to help families choose where they want to live and pay the rent, so long as there’s an adequate supply of rental housing and so long as the relocation programs are run carefully alongside efforts to strengthen vulnerable or declining neighborhoods.
Feel free to circulate this statement to others, post it on your website, and (for those of you who teach) use it in your classes (along with Rosin's original article).
The list of experts who endorse the statement rebutting Rosin's article can be found here.