BEHIND A controversial plan that would enable poor black Baltimore families to move to middle-class, majority-white areas, there is a simple idea: Living in more affluent neighborhoods can help people escape poverty.
The plan touched off a political uproar in Baltimore County last fall when it was proposed to settle a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on behalf of black public housing tenants. The suit alleges that Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have illegally segregated black tenants for six decades.
The Baltimore plan -- and nearly a dozen other "housing mobility" programs nationwide that move poor people to middle-income areas at government expense -- is modeled after a Chicago program that since 1981 has helped 6,500 poor black families relocate, mostly to predominantly white suburbs.
Evidence from Chicago shows that moving to the suburbs pays off.
The children of families who moved to the suburbs did much better than those who relocated to often-poor Chicago neighborhoods, according to research by James E. Rosenbaum of Northwestern University.
However, researchers agree that much work remains to be done on the neighborhood effect.
"Most researchers feel intuitively that neighborhoods should make a difference. But when it comes to measuring those impacts, it is difficult to do so," said Sandra J. Newman of the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies. "The results are rather mixed and inconclusive."
Dr. Rosenbaum compared families that relocated in Chicago (often in poor neighborhoods) under the mobility program with those who moved to largely white suburbs. He found that while mothers who relocated in the suburbs were more likely to be hired, their jobs paid no better on average than jobs held by mothers who stayed in the city.
But the children who moved to the suburbs showed impressive gains: They were more likely to finish high school, go to a four-year college or get good jobs. They made friends with white peers and, although there were incidents of racial hostility, "it wasn't like they were ostracized or isolated," Dr. Rosenbaum said.
"The results from Chicago are extremely positive and very strong. The magnitude of effects is very great. It's quite impressive," he said.
The research in Chicago's Gautreaux program (named for a public housing tenant who filed a desegregation lawsuit) did not measure what percentage of families abandoned the suburbs. Other researchers say the Gautreaux results may be distorted because families who moved to the suburbs were highly motivated to succeed and might have done well elsewhere.
While the academic debate is unresolved, the mobility strategy has gained support as a way to make subsidized housing effective. Both public housing projects and the normal Section 8 rental certificate program have been blamed for clustering the -- American "underclass" instead of breaking the cycle of poverty.
Between 1970 and 1990, according to HUD, the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods nearly tripled, to 10.4 million.
The Baltimore plan follows two trends in favor among Clinton administration policy-makers: It gives most tenants rental certificates instead of building new public housing, and it tries to break up concentrations of poverty by ensuring that families don't simply move from one poor neighborhood to another.
Government shutdowns, snowstorms and the holidays have held the plan's completion, lawyers for the parties say. It is under review by the Justice Department.
But the plan's main elements are not expected to change: More than 2,000 black public-housing families would move over the next six years, often to suburban counties. About 1,342 families would receive rental certificates for private-market housing. Another 814 families would be placed in scattered, subsidized units, some earmarked for homeownership.
The plan, in an effort to avoiding reconcentrating the poor and resegregating black families, would exclude certain areas for public-housing tenants who chose to move. Any census tract with 26 percent or more minority population, a poverty rate over 10 percent or more than 5 percent of subsidized housing units would be off limits.
Poverty should not be an insurmountable problem in the Baltimore region, said David Rusk, author of "Baltimore Unbound," a recent book about combating Baltimore's poverty.
For every 100 persons in the Baltimore metropolitan area, four whites and six blacks are poor on average, Mr. Rusk said. But while three of every four poor whites live in middle-class neighborhoods (usually in the suburbs), three of every four poor blacks are trapped in high-poverty wastelands.
The city's high-poverty neighborhoods are in a "kind of social meltdown," he said. Packed into inner-city neighborhoods, a "critical mass" of poor families is isolated from job opportunities, which tend to be in the suburbs. Each urban ill -- crime, drug addiction, teen-age pregnancy, school failure, welfare dependency -- seems to worsen all the others.
"As in physics, you end meltdown by reducing the density of the critical mass and reinserting control rods -- in this case, stable, working, middle-class families," Mr. Rusk said. "An ACLU-type settlement is a way of reducing critical mass and opening up for residents of Baltimore's poor neighborhoods something like the opportunities poor whites have."
Douglas S. Massey, author of "American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass," says residential segregation of blacks is a major cause -- not just a consequence -- of poverty.
"Housing markets distribute much more than shelter; they also distribute a variety of resources that shape and largely determine one's life chances. Along with housing, residential markets also allocate schooling, peer groups, safety, jobs, insurance costs, public services, home equity, and, ultimately, wealth," Dr. Massey writes.
Some critics of mobility plans say they drain the very families that could most help to revitalize poor city neighborhoods. If instituted on a large scale, they say, such plans would dilute black political power.
Others contend that mobility plans use taxpayers' money to undermine the American work ethic and say that spreading poverty is not the way to cure it.
"People cluster in neighborhoods with people of similar income groups. That's how the U.S. is populated," said Howard Husock, a public policy expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "If you're on welfare and suddenly you have an apartment in a middle-class neighborhood, you've lost the incentive to progress because you already have the reward."
Mr. Husock said mobility plans risk a racial backlash in the suburbs.
"It's an ill-advised scheme guaranteed to foment tremendous resentment in neighborhoods to which people are being relocated," he said. "Public policy has to respect the fact that Americans choose to live in these residential patterns."
A new HUD mobility program, Moving to Opportunity, is expected to yield definitive results about the effect of neighborhood on poor families.
MTO aroused such opposition in Baltimore County in 1994 that )) Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, then chair of a housing appropriations subcommittee, scuttled plans to expand it. Researchers will compare 285 poor families who relocate under MTO -- half with special counseling, half without -- to a group that stays behind in public housing.
But Delores Irvin, director of Chicago's Gautreaux program, says she doesn't need studies to persuade her that better neighborhoods can help families escape poverty.
"To me it's common sense that when all poor people live together, there is nothing there," she said. "If you are living in a decent environment, you aspire to do more."
"It's not about moving to the suburbs," Ms. Irvin said. "It's about moving to better communities and rebuilding neighborhoods. It's about giving people a choice of where to live."
James Bock is a reporter for The Sun.