Moving At-Risk Teenagers Out of High-Risk Neighborhoods: Why Girls Fare Better Than Boys


The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment offered over 4,000 public housing
residents in five U.S. cities the opportunity to move to very low poverty neighborhoods. Results
from a survey conducted four to seven years after random assignment showed that boys in the
experimental group fared no better or worse on measures of risk behavior than their controlgroup
counterparts, while girls in the experimental group demonstrated better mental health and
lower risk behavior relative to control group girls. We seek to understand these differences by
analyzing data from the survey and from in-depth interviews conducted with a random
subsample of 86 teens 14 to 19 years old in Baltimore and Chicago. We find that control group
boys, especially in Baltimore, deployed conscious strategies for avoiding neighborhood trouble,
in contrast to many experimental boys who had subsequently moved back to higher poverty
neighborhoods. Second, experimental group girls’ patterns of activity fit in more easily in lowpoverty
neighborhoods than boys’, whose routines tended to draw negative reactions from
community members and agents of social control. Third, experimental boys were far less likely
to have strong connections to non-biological father figures than controls, which may have
contributed to behavioral and mental health problems.

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