The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University has released a study showing the effects of housing vouchers on welfare families. Among a wide range of findings, the study shows vouchers had the strongest effect on improving neighborhood quality for those initially in the poorest neighborhoods, especially those living in public housing.

Specifically, use of the voucher lowered the proportion of families living in public or assisted housing neighborhoods with more than 30 percent poverty by 49 percentage points and increased the proportion living in 20 percent to 30 percent poverty neighborhoods by 28 percentage points.

The report, “Housing Patterns of Low Income Families with Children: Further Analysis of Data from the Study of the Effects of Housing Vouchers on Welfare Families,” builds off data from HUD’s Housing Voucher Evaluation, an experimental evaluation of the Welfare to Work Voucher program completed in 2006. The study takes a controlled look into several outcomes related to housing, homelessness, employment, education, and neighborhood quality of participating welfare families under a number of baseline scenarios in order to show the differential effects of the voucher according to initial physical, social, and economic differences in personal, family, household, and neighborhood characteristics of the participants.

“The study highlights the possibilities of what a voucher program can do and also shows the limitations of what housing vouchers can do, which is important because vouchers are the largest federal housing assistance program, and there are a lot of hopes for this program as to what it can achieve,” says Daniel McCue, a research analyst at the Boston-based Joint Center.

The study, supported by the MacArthur Foundation, also found that vouchers have a strong effect on reducing homelessness. Those in the most tenuous housing positions were most likely to use their voucher, indicating that the program does not need to be redesigned to serve the most vulnerable, McCue says. However, families who relinquish their vouchers often do so inadvertently because of the program’s administrative failures or because of lack of information, and the loss of vouchers results in particularly poor outcomes. Therefore, the program’s rules do need to be redesigned to help families keep their assistance, the report states.

Additionally, although vouchers may help doubled-up families form independent households, they do not make families any more able to afford rents without assistance within four to five years. “In the fifth year after random assignment, the voucher has a neutral effect on the long-term goal of self-sufficiency in independent housing with a reasonable rent burden … having been issued a voucher makes it neither more nor less likely that the family will be living on its own and able to afford the rent without a subsidy,” the report states.

McCue says the report warns that the voucher program is just one part of a wider strategy needed to fight poverty and improve neighborhood conditions. “I hope this report shows that in order to improve the overall plight of families, housing vouchers must be combined with job training, social services, asset building strategies, and other support services.”