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.