Newswise — Low-income children with special needs or socioemotional problems who moved to more advantaged neighborhoods were less likely to ever use alcohol than those who remained in public housing, according to a study just published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Researchers also found reduced alcohol use among the mothers of some of these children. The study compared alcohol use patterns in low-income families who received different kinds of housing support. The findings point to a need for programs and policies to extend the beneficial effects of housing mobility and voucher programs to all families.

The Moving to Opportunity (MTO) randomized control trial followed 4,600 children in families receiving public housing support in Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City from 1994 to 2008. The families, who were living in public housing at the outset of the study, volunteered for the study, which randomized placement in one of three groups: a ‘low poverty neighborhood’ group received housing counseling and vouchers to subsidize rent an apartment in neighborhoods with less than 10% poverty; a ‘Section 8’ treatment group received vouchers to subsidize rent without counseling or location restriction; and a control group remained in public housing with no additional supports. At the beginning of the trial, mothers were asked about their children’s socioemotional health vulnerabilities, including having a behavioral or emotional issue, learning issue, school suspension or expulsion in the prior two years, or health issues that limited activity or required medicine or special equipment. A final survey of various measures, including alcohol use, was conducted fifteen years after the program began.

Researchers looked at responses given by mothers and youth aged 13 to 20 when the final survey was conducted about alcohol use patterns, including quantity and frequency of drinking and problem drinking behaviors. For boys and girls with baseline socioemotional health vulnerability, both voucher programs were linked to reduced odds of ever drinking alcohol, compared to the public housing control group. Youth in the low poverty neighborhood voucher program who, at baseline, had health issues that required special medical treatment consumed less alcohol when they did drink. There were no significant differences in drinking patterns between voucher and control groups for youth without special medical or socioemotional issues needs at baseline. The authors speculate that more vulnerable children may receive greater benefit from moving to lower poverty communities, which may have with better access to educational services for special needs students.

The voucher programs were associated with both positive and negative drinking patterns among mothers. Past month drinking among mothers declined if the mother had a child with learning issues, but increased in mothers without a child with learning issues. This pattern may indicate the higher rates of alcohol use in more affluent neighborhoods and among people of higher socioeconomic status.

Demand for housing voucher and housing mobility programs far exceeds supply. The study authors emphasize the need to address structural conditions in schools and neighborhoods of low-income families and explore investments that can replicate the benefits of housing mobility programs.

Housing Mobility Protects Against Alcohol Use for Children with Socioemotional Health Vulnerabilities: An Experimental Design. N. Thyden, N. Schmidt, S. Joshi, H. Kim, T. Nelson, T. Osypuk