For the majority of U.S. public school students, what school they go to is determined by their parents’ residential choices over any other factor. About 70 percent of children in public schools attend their neighborhood school, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Of course, for most middle-class families, the quality of local schools plays a large role in deciding where to live. Families with the ability to shop around in the housing market rely heavily on friends and other networks to determine which schools are the best, and then choose homes they can afford near these schools.

But for poor families, the process looks much different.

Housing and School Choice in Mobile, AL

Our research team spent three years in Mobile, Alabama talking to 100 poor African-American families about how they decided where to live and where to send their kids to school. Most families in our study lived in neighborhoods that were over 90 percent African American, with median household incomes under $20,000.

We found that, unlike middle-class families, poor families make residential and school choice decisions separately, usually prioritizing housing first.

This isn’t because schools aren’t important to them. Poor families value and emphasize education just like middle-class parents. No, the biggest difference is that residential moves among the poor are often constrained, stressful, and unplanned.

Poor families move frequently, forced out by major problems with their housing units or conflicts with landlords. Others move unexpectedly after housing units catch fire or are sold out from under them.

For these families, moving means searching under duress for hard-to-find housing. Overwhelming financial constraints further limit where poor families can live—parents are likely to hold low-wage, part-time jobs and rely on food stamps to get by.

Many Good Neighborhoods Are Out of Reach For the Poor

The middle-class neighborhoods many poor families aspire to live in—including the neighborhoods with good schools—are simply out of reach financially, even for families with housing choice vouchers or utility assistance.  Poor families face roadblocks to renting even the more affordable units in middle-class neighborhoods, in the form of high security deposits and credit checks.

Given these difficult circumstances, poor families do the best they can to find housing that meets their families’ basic needs, at a price that they can afford. Parents emphasize the relative safety of the neighborhood, proximity to childcare, and the quality of the housing unit.

For example, Marilyn* and her family moved closer to her husband’s parents so they could help with after-school childcare. Without a car, Marilyn “had to ride the bus back and forth to work and it was easier with them going to school close to their grandparents.”

Denise, a mother of four who had recently lost her janitorial job, moved because “it was too much shootin’ and killin’ out there.” One particular incident pushed her to her limits:

“…my kids, one day they was outside in the yard playing . . . and a guy from across the street just started shootin’ at some dude that was runnin’ that way and bullets just flyin’ past their head and they runnin’ in the house. It’s time to go.”

Denise moved her family into a different apartment in a neighborhood closer to her family that she believed was safer. Unfortunately, the neighborhood was still segregated and poor, and the schools were no better than the last.

Parents like Denise and Marilyn are often overwhelmed by immediate concerns like safety, putting a roof over their children’s heads, and childcare needs. When they do move—something the families we studied did frequently—moves are typically from one poor and segregated neighborhood to another.

Unsurprisingly, the local schools in these low-income neighborhoods are also highly segregated, and most are significantly lower-performing than schools in their middle-class counterparts.

For the Poor, Residential Barriers Are School Barriers

In the Mobile County School District , there is no school choice program for charter schools or school vouchers, and so school attendance is a default result of housing decisions. Most poor children wind up attending highly segregated and lower-performing district schools that serve their neighborhood.

When poor parents are unhappy with low-income neighborhood schools and want to send their children to “good” schools located in the middle-class neighborhoods of Mobile, apart from moving to these neighborhoods—a financial impossibility for most poor families—there are a limited number of options.

Parents can pursue school hardship transfers, justifying the need to transfer schools due to work circumstances or some other difficulty. Parents can also apply for magnet school attendance or send their children to private schools to provide a better school environment.

However, these options are often too costly for families to maintain for long due to steep tuition and/or transportation costs. For these families, residential barriers also serve as educational barriers, keeping children from enrolling in higher-performing schools.

Better Housing Programs Mean Better Schools

The significant challenges that poor families face navigating the residential market to find affordable, stable, safe, and decent housing makes it difficult for them to include school quality in their housing decisions.

Housing policies—such as Housing Choice Vouchers—could, in theory, open the educational landscape for poor families. Unlike traditional public housing projects, vouchers allow low-income families to rent housing in the larger metropolitan area.

Our findings and recent research show that, even with vouchers, families struggle to find housing in neighborhoods with higher-performing schools. This suggests families might need housing counseling assistance to learn about the educational benefits of moving to low-poverty communities, and support to engage schools in communities they are not familiar with.

Developing policy with an eye toward reducing residential, transportation, and childcare constraints for poor families may allow us to truly expand the educational opportunities available to poor students.

For more on our research, check out our chapter “Residential Mobility and School Choice Among Poor Families,” in Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools. And for more on building housing voucher programs that really work, read about Baltimore’s Housing Mobility Program.

Respondent names have been changed