Why Don't Housing Choice Voucher Recipients Live Near Better Schools? Insights from Experimental and Big Administrative Data

Ingrid Gould Ellen, Keren Mertens Horn, and Amy Ellen Schwartz
Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 35 (Fall 2016): pp. 884-905.

Housing choice vouchers provide low-income households with additional income to spend on rental housing in the private market. The assistance vouchers provide is substantial, offering the potential to dramatically expand the neighborhoods—and associated public schools—that low-income households can reach. However, existing research on the program suggests that housing choice voucher holders live in neighborhoods with schools that are no better than those accessible to other households with similar incomes. Households, in other words, do not seem to spend the additional income provided by the voucher to access better schools. In this analysis we rely on a large-scale administrative data set to explore why voucher households typically do not live near to better schools, as measured by school-level proficiency rates. We combine confidential administrative data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development on 1.4 million housing choice voucher holders in 15 states, with school-level data from 5,841 different school districts, to examine why the average housing voucher holder does not live near to higher-performing schools than otherwise similar households without vouchers. Specifically, we use the large-scale administrative data set to test whether voucher holders living in areas with good schools nearby and slack housing markets move toward better schools when schools become salient for them—that is, when their oldest child becomes school eligible. We take advantage of the thick sample of households with young children provided through our administrative data to implement both a household fixed effects and a regression discontinuity design. Together these analyses shed light on whether voucher households are more likely to move toward better schools when schools are most relevant, and how market conditions shape that response. We find that families with vouchers are more likely to move toward a better school in the year before their oldest child meets the eligibility cutoff for kindergarten, suggesting salience matters. Further, the magnitude of the effect is larger in metropolitan areas with a relatively high share of affordable rental units located near high-performing schools and in neighborhoods in close proximity to higher-performing schools. Results suggest that, if given the appropriate information and opportunities, more voucher families would move to better schools when their children reach school age.

Wagner Faculty