Context Extensive observational evidence indicates that youth in high-poverty neighborhoods exhibit poor mental health, although not all children may be affected similarly.
Objective To use experimental evidence to assess whether gender and family health problems modify the mental health effects of moving from high- to low-poverty neighborhoods.
Design Randomized controlled trial.
Setting Volunteer low-income families in public housing in 5 US cities between 1994-1997.
Participants We analyze 4- to 7-year outcomes in youth aged 12 to 19 years (n = 2829, 89% effective response rate) in the Moving to Opportunity Study.
Intervention Families were randomized to remain in public housing (control group) or to receive government-funded rental subsidies to move into private apartments (experimental group). Intention-to-treat analyses included intervention interactions by gender and health vulnerability (defined as prerandomization health/developmental limitations or disabilities in family members).
Main Outcome Measures Past-year psychological distress (Kessler 6 scale [K6]) and the Behavioral Problems Index (BPI). Supplemental analyses used past-year major depressive disorder (MDD).
Results Male gender (P = .02) and family health vulnerability (P = .002) significantly adversely modified the intervention effect on K6 scores; male gender (P = .01), but not health vulnerability (P = .17), significantly adversely modified the intervention effect on the BPI. Girls without baseline health vulnerabilities were the only subgroup to benefit on any outcome (K6: β = −0.21; 95% CI, −0.34 to −0.07; P = .003; MDD: odds ratio = 0.42; 95% CI, 0.20 to 0.85; P = .02). For boys with health vulnerabilities, intervention was associated with worse K6 (β = 0.26; 95% CI, 0.09 to 0.44; P = .003) and BPI (β = 0.24; 95% CI, 0.09 to 0.40; P = .002) values. Neither girls with health vulnerability nor boys without health vulnerability experienced intervention benefits. Adherence-adjusted instrumental variable analysis found intervention effects twice as large. Patterns were similar for MDD, but estimates were imprecise owing to low prevalence.
Conclusions Although some girls benefited, boys and adolescents from families with baseline health problems did not experience mental health benefits from housing mobility policies and may need additional program supports.