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Moving to Better Neighborhoods Boosts Physical and Mental Health

Update Date: Nov 17, 2012 02:01 AM EST

Researchers at the University of Chicago claim that moving from adverse living conditions to a slightly better environment may have long-term physical and mental benefits in low-income adults. It can also show substantial increase in their happiness, though it will not impact their economic status.

The research found that moving from a high poverty area to a low poverty area, without any increase in the income of the families, showed a major impact in happiness, which was equivalent to an annual increase of $13000 in the family income.

For the study, the researchers used data from a large-scale randomized social experiment called Moving to Opportunity, and found that neighborhood income segregation had a greater impact than neighborhood racial segregation in shaping the outcomes of adults in the study.

"This finding is important, in part, because racial segregation has been trending down since 1970, but income segregation has gone up steadily since then," said lead author Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy at Chicago and director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

"So the problem of adverse neighborhood effects on low-income families seems to be getting worse, rather than better, over time," he added.

Another revelation of the study was that focusing on income inequality ignores the negative effects of growing residential segregation by economic status on poor families.

According to the researchers, the drop in happiness of the low-income adults due to growing residential income segregation since 1970 is large enough to offset the full income growth for low-income Americans over the past four decades, Medical Xpress reported.

"Focusing just on trends in income inequality over time in the U.S., while ignoring the growth of income segregation over time, understates the trends towards greater inequality in well-being in America," Ludwig said.

The study relied on data from 4604 low-income families and the outcomes of adults, 10-15 years after they moved out of their neighbor.  

The families involved in the study were extremely disadvantaged economically, and the households were headed by African American or Hispanic females. Less than 40 percent of them had finished high-school. The reason for them to participate in the study was to get away from gangs and drug activities.

Previous studies have shown that neighborhood environments significantly impact well-being of low-income families.

"These findings suggest the importance of focusing on efforts to improve the well-being of poor families, rather than just the narrower goal of reducing income poverty, and the potential value of community-level interventions for achieving that end," co-author of the study, Ludwig said.

The study was published in the Sept. 20 issue of Science.

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