About a month ago, the New York Times ran an interesting article on evaluations of a federal program that gave subsidies to poor families to move into richer neighborhoods.* The article is titled Intangible Dividend of Antipoverty Effort: Happiness, which suggests that the only measurable benefit from the antipoverty program was increased happiness. And that’s how the article begins:
When thousands of poor families were given federal housing subsidies in the early 1990s to move out of impoverished neighborhoods, social scientists expected the experience of living in more prosperous communities would pay off in better jobs, higher incomes and more education.
That did not happen. But more than 10 years later, the families’ lives had improved in another way: They reported being much happier than a comparison group of poor families who were not offered subsidies to move, a finding that was published on Thursday in the journal Science.
That alone is an interesting finding, as it leads to all sorts of tough, reflective policy questions. Is the purpose of government to promote economic well-being and equality? Or more intangible gains like increased happiness? Of course, social science have a solution to this problem: commensurate the intangible with the real:
The improvement was equal to the level of life satisfaction of someone whose annual income was $13,000 more a year, said Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago and the lead author of the study.
So, even though the poor didn’t actually get $13,000 more per year in income, they’re as happy as someone who did. Hooray? This bit alone would merit a blog post in my “quantification of everything” series. But what really pushes this article over the top in terms of its reification of the economic comes next:
[T]here was little evidence that the new neighborhoods made much of a difference in either income or education, a disappointment for social scientists, who had hoped that the experiment would lead to new ways of combating poverty.
What researchers did find were substantial improvements in the physical and mental health of the people who moved. Researchers reported last year in The New England Journal of Medicine that the participants who moved to new neighborhoods had lower rates of obesity and diabetes than those not offered the chance to move.
So let’s walk through this one more time. Researchers were disappointed to learn that these intervention efforts had only “intangible” effects, like increased happiness, and not “tangible” effects like increased income. But, oh by the way, participants also had lower rates of diabetes.
You see my confusion, right? I, perhaps naively, would have thought that better physical and mental health outcomes would be one notch more important than higher income.** I mean, income itself is an intangible – it’s a stream of promises. What we care about, what economists have told us to care about since as far back as Adam Smith and before, are not the promises, but what we can get from them. Like, I don’t know, more health and happiness.*** And yet, somehow, finding out that the program increases both health and happiness leads to a headline emphasizing “intangible” dividends because there was no direct effect on income?
* Hat tip to Beth Berman for sending the article along and sharing my confusion over the definition of intangible used in the story.
** I want to emphasize here that my problem is with the framing of the NYT article, and not the study itself (which I have not read). We all know that media reportage of complex (or even relatively simple) social science findings is always through a scanner darkly, so to speak.
*** Also, naively, I would have guessed that most of the benefits would accrue to the next generation, who presumably grew up in neighborhoods with better schools, etc.