Few programs for the poor are so widely reviled as public housing. For opponents on the right, housing projects are costly monuments to the folly of misguided idealism, stifling residents' ambition by surrounding them with crime, decay and bureaucracy. For critics on the left, the projects — which were often segregated — became ugly icons of the racism of the white elite, an elite that was unwilling to implement more effective solutions to social problems.

If a child grows up “in one of those housing projects of which everyone in New York is so proud, he has at the front door, if not closer, the pimps, the whores, the junkies — in a word, the danger of life in the ghetto,” said James Baldwin in 1963. “And the child knows this, though he doesn’t know why.”

Comprehensive new data published this week challenges the cultural consensus on public housing. For all their flaws, housing projects can have remarkable positive effects on the children who grow up in them, researchers conclude in a paper published by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research.

Children who spend more time in public housing will earn hundreds of dollars more each year than they would have if their parents had not received housing assistance from the government during those years. Children who benefit from public housing are also less likely to be imprisoned, according to the data.

Not having to worry about paying private-sector rents, parents might have more time to spend on their children — helping them with their homework, keeping them out of trouble and guiding them to a more successful adulthood, the researchers theorize.

For decades, both Republican and Democratic policymakers have sought to move families out of public housing by offering them vouchers through Section 8. Households can use these vouchers to help pay rent in private buildings. Today, there are about 2.2 million people living in public housing, and another 5 million using vouchers to pay rent in private buildings.

John C. Haltiwanger, an economist with the University of Maryland, and his colleagues also studied the effects of Section 8 and did not find evidence that vouchers were any better for children than traditional public housing.

“There’s been a big shift away from public housing toward Section 8,” Haltiwanger said. “It’s no panacea.”

Studying families in assisted housing is a challenge for researchers, because there is no way to know for certain how those families would be doing without the help. It is possible to compare households in subsidized housing to other socioeconomically similar households that are not receiving assistance, but these families might be subtly different.

For instance, parents who can win a lottery for public housing might be more adept at navigating complex bureaucracies than other parents with similar levels of education and income. Those skills might help their children in other ways.

To get around this problem, Haltiwanger and his colleagues compared groups of siblings who had grown up in the same households, but who had spent different amounts of time in public housing.

Often, families have to wait years after applying for housing assistance. The oldest children might already be almost out of the house by the time their parents get an apartment in a housing project. Comparing the older children to their younger siblings, who will spend more time living in the project, allows the researchers to focus specifically on the effects of housing assistance as opposed to those of parenting or other factors unique to each family.

The researchers combined data from the census with reams of records from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to identify children between the ages of 13 and 18 in 2000 whose families received housing assistance.

They then collected records on those same children as adults to determine how much money they were making and whether they were in prison.

For girls, an additional year in public housing increased their annual earnings when they were 26 years old by $488 on average and reduced the likelihood that they were in prison by about 11 percent.

An additional year with Section 8 vouchers increased their earnings at 26 by $468, while lessening their chance of incarceration by about 9 percent.

These figures reflect major gains for black and Hispanic girls. The effects of housing assistance on white girls were statistically indistinguishable from zero, and Haltiwanger said more research would be needed to determine why housing subsidies do not have the same benefits for this group.

Another important question raised by the research, he said, is why vouchers are apparently much more beneficial for girls than for boys. Another year with vouchers increased boys' earnings as adults by about $256 and reduced their chance of incarceration by about 2 percent.

Another year in public housing increased boys' average annual earnings at 26 by about $508. They became 6.5 percent less likely to be in prison. The researchers did not find notable differences by race or ethnicity for boys.

However, for black boys growing up in the very poorest projects, the benefits of housing assistance when they entered the labor force were also indistinguishable from zero. It could be that the familiar critique of public housing — that it concentrates disadvantages geographically, making them more difficult to overcome — is accurate for black boys in the poorest housing developments.

Meanwhile, in the same buildings, boys of other races and girls were better off, and only a few housing projects are so severely disadvantaged.

“There are housing projects of all shapes and sizes out there,” Haltiwanger said.

His group's findings contrast with other research demonstrating that vouchers can do more for young people than public housing.

Those studies, however, suggest that poor families are better off if they use their vouchers to move to a better neighborhood. Few families receiving vouchers through Section 8 in fact move to neighborhoods with less poverty, however, either because landlords can legally discriminate against them in many places, or simply because they prefer to live among people they know.

Last year, according to the authors, families in public housing lived in census tracts that were 23 percent poor, on average. The figure for families with vouchers was almost identical: 22 percent.

That could explain why families with vouchers are not better off than those living in housing developments. If so, realizing the promise of vouchers might not only require new rules against discrimination, but also extensive counseling and support to enable recipients to adapt to life in a new neighborhood.

Successfully moving millions of poor families to different neighborhoods would amount to social engineering on a large scale, Haltiwanger pointed out, and the effects would be difficult to predict. “That would be an enormous challenge, to pull that off,” he said.

No steak, no seafood, no strip clubs: There’s a logical gap in the recent laws that bash the poor who receive government welfare and food stamps. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

More from Wonkblog: