After a year, Move to Prosper takes stock

Joel Oliphint
Move to Prosper's Amy Klaben

In Franklin County, thousands of households put more than half of their paycheck toward housing. It’s now a well-known problem: Central Ohio desperately needs more affordable housing. And Move to Prosper hopes to be one part of the solution.

As Alive reported in a cover story last year, Amy Klaben, the former head of Homeport, launched Move to Prosper’s pilot program in 2018, relocating 10 female-headed households from low-opportunity neighborhoods to high-opportunity neighborhoods and providing them with rental assistance, life coaching and career service for three years. An initiative of Ohio State and community partners, Move to Prosper takes its approach from research by Harvard’s Raj Chetty, which shows that for every year a child under age 13 spends in a low-poverty/high-opportunity area, the child’s chances of life success increase dramatically.

In March, Move to Prosper completed theProsperity Report, an interim evaluation of the program after one year, and on Thursday, May 14, at 4 p.m., Klaben and others will hold avirtual briefing to highlight some of the report’s key findings. 

One concept became particularly clear: “Change starts by eliminating chronic stress,” Klaben said recently by phone, noting that, often, amid life-altering crises, society expects its community members to bounce right back. “It starts with having a secure home where the family feels safe. The women spoke over and over about the importance of safety and the importance of having that healthy home. … It took about nine months before we really started seeing the women begin to focus on themselves. They focused first on providing that stable place for the children and getting them set in their schools.”

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The study also found that most of the 18 kids in the program have benefited from a reduction in stress while attending better-resourced schools. “Three of the kids actually tested as gifted,” Klaben said. “And the behavioral issues for some were related to being bored and not having appropriate support in the school.”

The report also digs into some of the data to determine returns on investment. Some financial benefits for the women were immediately apparent (eight of the 10 women reported that their credit scores went up), and, based on existing research, the report projects benefits for the kids, too, estimating the cumulative improvement in lifetime earnings for the 18 Move to Prosper kids at $5.4 million.

One of the more surprising results so far, according to Klaben, has been the improved health outcomes in the children, five of whom have asthma.

“Dr. Jason Reece, who's the project evaluator from Ohio State, was very surprised that half the families reported positive health impacts after just four months of living in their new homes, and families attributed it mainly to improvements in respiratory health because they're living in healthy housing,” Klaben said. “He was even more surprised this time with the reduction in emergency room visits. He asked, ‘In the year prior, compared to this past year, what's the difference?’ And there were 20 avoided ER visits. That’s $30,000 [in savings].”

Of course, it’s not just numbers. The coaching aspect of the program is crucial, Klaben said, as are the relationships among the mothers. “Early on, one of the women's comments was, ‘I feel so alone. I didn't know anybody else felt this way,’” she said. “Now they're in a position to have peer support.”

Those relationships have been more of a challenge to maintain since the pandemic hit, but the coaching sessions are still happening virtually. Regardless, the COVID-19 crisis has affected the employment of half of the women in Move to Prosper, and the impact has led Klaben and her collaborators to consider extending this pilot program beyond when it’s due to end in August of 2021. “This will not be resolved by then, and it would be a tough time to move, and the kids would not have had the full experience we had planned for in their higher opportunity neighborhoods,” Klaben said.

She’s also rethinking the future of Move to Prosper. The intention was to follow up this 10-person pilot program with a 100-person demonstration project. “We'll have to analyze, over the next months and beyond, the ability to raise the funding for a demonstration project. The landscape has changed,” Klaben said. “The discussion is, ‘Do we move into implementation, or do we still do a study?’”

From a bird’s-eye view, the program has cemented Klaben’s belief that to tackle problems of housing and poverty in Franklin County, more comprehensive solutions are needed. “We silo people and say, ‘You don't have a job? Go over here and get your job training.’ And that's that. ‘You need food? You go over here. We're not going to help you with your job training or your financial literacy or the mental health issues that you may be experiencing. We'll take care of one thing, and it's up to you to figure out how to navigate everything else,’” Klaben said. “With Move to Prosper, we're taking a holistic approach.”