GW Research Spring 2014 Edition

Flexibility Affects Path to Citizenship

(Photo: ©
May 01, 2014

For the thousands of non-U.S. citizens who spend time living in government-sponsored housing, the flexibility they are given in choosing a home can be an important factor in eventually attaining citizenship, according to researchers.

“All other things being equal, if one [immigrant] is in a voucher program and the other is in a housing project, the voucher program recipient is more likely to naturalize,” says study lead John Carruthers, program director of the Sustainable Urban Planning Program at GW’s College of Professional Studies. In that sense, housing choice has “a statistically significant impact on the likelihood of your becoming a citizen,” he says.

The study, published last year in the Journal of Regional Science, used U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data from 2007 to 2009. The team—which also included political scientist Natasha Duncan of Mercyhurst University and statistician Brigitte S. Waldorf of Purdue University—found that voucher program participants were up to 7 percent more likely to naturalize than immigrants given space in housing projects.

“These numbers seem small but they are substantive, given the limited number of people who transition to citizenship,” Dr. Carruthers says.

The key is flexibility, he says. Voucher program enrollees may choose to live closer to jobs or schools or family, rather than being tethered to the locations of a housing project, helping them achieve their goals.

“Neoclassical economics teaches us that individual welfare, and in turn societal welfare, is maximized when people are able to make their own choices,” says Dr. Carruthers.

The findings, he says, may be counterintuitive to some. “Many people have a tendency to want to give in-kind transfers [when thinking about aid],” he says. “‘You want a house? OK, here’s a house, and you live where I want you to live.’ That’s a very natural reaction to seeing your tax dollars spent on public aid. But if you give flexible cash-like aid, instead of in-kind transfers, you enable people to make their own decisions.” —Ruth Steinhardt