ATLANTA -- In the 1990s, the federal government tried an unusual social experiment: It offered thousands of poor women in big-city public housing a chance to live in more affluent neighborhoods.
A decade later, the women who relocated had lower rates of diabetes and extreme obesity -- differences being hailed as compelling evidence that where you live can determine your health.
The experiment, begun as a federal Housing and Urban Development project in New York, Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles, was initially aimed at researching whether moving impoverished families to more prosperous areas could improve employment or schooling. But according to a study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, the most interesting effect may have been on the women's physical condition.
About 16 percent of the women who moved had diabetes, compared with about 20 percent of women who stayed in public housing. And about 14 percent of those who left the projects were extremely obese, compared with nearly 18 percent of the other women.
The differences offered some of the strongest support yet for the idea that where you live can significantly affect your overall health, especially if your home is in a low-income area with few safe places to exercise, limited food options and meager medical services. "This study proves that concentrated poverty is not only bad policy, it's bad for your health," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan.
But simply moving isn't the answer, he said. New ways must be found to help families "break the cycle of poverty that can quite literally make them sick."
The research was led by Jens Ludwig, a University of Chicago professor of public policy.