Why Living in a Poor Neighborhood Can Change Your Biology

The sheer stress of an environment contributes to obesity and diabetes.

By Andrew Curry, Photo by Peter Baker June 14, 2018


It was the most ambitious social experiment ever conducted by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. And one of the most surprising.

In 1994, HUD randomly assigned 4,600 poor, mostly African- American families in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York to one of three groups. One group received housing vouchers intended to help them move to low-poverty neighborhoods. Another group received vouchers without geographic restrictions. A final control group didn’t receive vouchers at all.

Called “Moving to Opportunity,” the study was designed to answer a question that had divided social scientists and policymakers for decades: Did getting people off of welfare and other forms of social assistance depend on changing their social context?

study shows why living in a poor neighborhood can change your biologyTOWN WITHOUT PITY: A rundown, abandoned house in Detroit symbolizes the kind of poor American neighborhood that fuels destructive levels of stress. Photo by Peter Baker

More than a decade later, the researchers found that a lot of things hadn’t changed. Many people offered housing vouchers didn’t move. The people who did move to better neighborhoods didn’t change their diets or daily lifestyles. Their kids showed no improvement in reading or math scores. And moving didn’t make people any more or less economically self-sufficient, the question the study was designed to answer.

But as the experiment went on, researchers began encountering anecdotal evidence that surprised them. The people who moved out of poor neighborhoods were healthier. When they went back and measured the differences between people who got vouchers and people who didn’t, the results were remarkable: The people who got vouchers to move to low-poverty neighborhoods had significantly lower rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

Please read more about this fascinating discovery in the pdf file below. Feel free to read online or download to read at your convenience.

DOWNLOAD Living-in-a-Poor-Neighborhood-Can-Change-Your-Biology.pdf PDF 258KB



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