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Economy

How a Section 8 Experiment Could Reveal a Better Way to Escape Poverty

A low-cost program created by Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Insights research group shows dramatic improvements in social mobility for low-income families in Seattle.
A low-income apartment complex in Charleston, South Carolina. Cities in the Southeast has the lowest rates of social mobility in the U.S., according to the "Opportunity Atlas" developed by Harvard economist Raj Chetty.
A low-income apartment complex in Charleston, South Carolina. Cities in the Southeast has the lowest rates of social mobility in the U.S., according to the "Opportunity Atlas" developed by Harvard economist Raj Chetty.Robert Ray/AP

Housing vouchers help millions of American families weather the crushing experience of poverty. With housing choice vouchers, low-income households receive federal aid to pay their rent. Also known as Section 8, the program has been a simple and effective alternative to America’s troubled experiment with public housing.

But Section 8 is showing its age. Landlords hold a great deal of sway over the system: They decide who signs a lease (and who doesn’t). When a woman in McKinney, Texas, shouted at black children at a public pool to “Go back to your Section 8 homes!” in 2015, it offered a typical illustration of how bias can undermine the program. While housing vouchers are supposed to allow recipients to be able to choose where to live, most of the 2.2 million families who receive housing choice vouchers are packed into high-poverty areas.