More to Bad Jobs Than Low Hourly Pay

March 24, 2014

New York Times columnist Steven Greenhouse profiles a nurse’s aide and several other low-wage workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee to show why low-wage workers generally are “finding poverty harder to escape.”

One reason is simple enough. Their hourly pay rates are too low. All the profiled workers get somewhat more than the federal minimum, which applies in Tennessee and 28 other states — not, however, as much as the proposed $10.10 an hour. So the increase would help.

But low pay rates alone don’t account for the troubles the workers have paying for basic expenses. The nurse’s aide, for example, like a growing number of low-wage workers across the country, doesn’t have a regular work schedule, let alone a full-time job.

“For today’s low-wage, hourly workers, … scarce, unstable and unpredictable hours are the new norm,” write Professors Charlotte Alexander and Anna Haley-Lock.

Employers aren’t only cutting back on full-time jobs. Those that can are, in many cases, relying on “just-in-time” scheduling, i.e., adding and subtracting workers’ hours according to immediate need.

It’s reportedly common in restaurants and other retail businesses, which can now establish very short shifts — 15 minutes, in some cases — and use software to fill them, based on customer traffic, sales or predictors like weather conditions.

Workers may show up for what they think is a five-hour shift and be sent home early. They may be told they’ll need to put in extra hours — or to be available for them, with no guarantee they’ll be working.

They may have no regular hours at all, but instead have to call in daily — or be constantly accessible by phone. More commonly, their work days and/or hours change from week to week. And they don’t know what their schedule will be until a day or so before they’ve got to meet it.

“Even then,” said one chain restaurant worker, “it was only a guesstimate.”

Likewise, of course, the budget planning that low-income people are enjoined to practice. “I have been scheduled for as few as six hours in a week and as many as forty,” says a New York City sales associate. “How is anyone … supposed to plan a budget with such erratic schedules?”

And how is a parent supposed to manage childcare arrangements, when she’s sometimes needed, sometimes not, sometimes for far longer than scheduled — or at altogether different hours?

And how will she afford child care when a center may tack on a hefty fee for late pick-ups — or when her hours are suddenly, though perhaps (or perhaps not) temporarily cut in half?

Iffy schedules pose other problems for low-wage workers. For example, they can’t take on a second part-time job because they can’t commit to any work schedule, even if not another “just-in-time.”

They often can’t try to improve their prospects by getting more education or specialized training because they never know when or how often their work schedule will conflict with their classes.

The surges and plunges in working hours also wreak havoc on eligibility for many public benefits and the support they provide because recipients generally have to recertify, i.e., periodically reapply.

A woman in Massachusetts says, “A good month, I can work thirty-eight to forty-five hours and it just happens to be that month they want my pay stubs for food stamps. OK, the next month comes around I’ve worked three hours one week, twelve hours another week … They don’t want my pay stubs for that month.”

So she could lose at least part of her food stamp benefit — and then have to try to recover it. Temporary hours spikes can also jeopardize childcare subsidies, WIC, housing assistance and Medicaid.

On the other hand, earnings plunges make it even more difficult for low-wage workers to qualify for unemployment benefits. Yet they’re at high risk for unemployment — in part because they’re expected to work whenever.

Finally, as many have written, the on-again, off-again, never-know-when schedules create high levels of stress for workers. They’re also harmfully stressful for their children, whose daily routines and caregivers constantly change.

CLASP and partners have identified two policies that some employers have adopted to mitigate the problems of unstable schedules for low-wage workers.

One, also favored by Professors Alexander and Haley-Lock, guarantees workers who’ve reported when told to a certain number of hours of pay.

Seven states and the District of Columbia actually have so-called “reporting pay” laws, but they vary considerable in whom they cover, the number of hours guaranteed and the required pay rate.

These laws may be on the books, but it’s doubtful they’re consistently enforced, since they hinge on vulnerable workers filing complaints. And, of course, they do nothing about schedules that constantly change.

Nor does the other policy, though it comes closer. It guarantees workers a set number of hours a week — or pay for those hours if there’s not enough work for them to do. Costco, among others (probably not very many), has a version of this policy.

There’s a business case to be made for a work guarantee. It can help reduce turnover, for example, and increase productivity — not only because workers know their jobs, but because they want to do them well.

But, as the CLASP report says, “relying solely on voluntary employer action will not suffice.” We’ll need new and/or revised laws and regulations to make bad jobs better in the rapidly-growing low-wage service sectors.


Lower Healthcare Spending, Better Health for Low-Income Americans

March 20, 2014

Now, here’s an interesting idea. We’re spending so much on health care because we’re under-spending on programs and services that make for a healthy population.

This is the thesis of a new book entitled The American Health Care Paradox. It’s not for the casual reader, and I confess I haven’t read it.

But public health professor and Health Stew blogger John McDonough provides a summary of the main argument, with eye-popping graphs. And we get another, broader overview of the research in slides the coauthors prepared for a conference last September.

The paradox the title refers to has been often discussed. The U.S. spends much more per capita on health care than any other highly-developed country — 50% more than the next two biggest spenders, according to recent figures from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

But the outcomes don’t show it. Life expectancy is below the average for the OECD countries — lower, in fact, than all but eight of them, none nearly so wealthy as the U.S.

The U.S. also ranks very low on some other common health indicators — both maternal and infant mortality rates, for example, and the rate of infants born weighing dangerously little.

It’s common to attribute these, as the OECD does, to the fact that the U.S. is one of the very few developed countries without a universal healthcare system and to our extraordinarily high obesity rate – a function, the OECD suggests, of the many “disadvantaged” among us.

The American Health Care Paradox coauthors don’t dismiss these factors. But they’ve got a different explanation. Basically, we spend a lot on curing illnesses — or keeping people alive when we can’t, even when they’re almost sure to die very soon.

But we scrimp on what they call social services, e.g., education and job training, housing assistance, cash benefits for jobless workers and people with disabilities, support services for seniors and “family supports,” by which I suppose they mean things like high-quality affordable child care.

We spend less on these than any other OECD country. And our ratio of social services to healthcare spending is the lowest too. This, said ex-Wonkblogger Ezra Klein, helps explain why 5% of the population accounted for about half our healthcare spending in 2008.

Well, we’re moving bumpily (and imperfectly) toward an expanded, publicly-subsidized healthcare system. And we already have some evidence that the Affordable Care Act is slowing the growth of healthcare spending.

But at the same time, we’re in a cost-cutting mode on social services. The recent budget deal doesn’t alter this, since real-dollar spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations will be 15% lower this year — and 17% lower next year — than in 2010.

Spending isn’t the only issue. Our healthcare services move on one track and our social services on another — actually, on many tracks.

A child may show up in an emergency room on a regular basis, gasping for breath, despite the medications for her asthma. The treating physicians may suspect that mold in the home and/or fumes from the highway outside are triggers.

They’ll tell the parents, one supposes, if they’ve taken the time to talk about the home environment — and know how to listen. But linking them to a nonprofit legal service that will go after the landlord or to a public agency that could provide the assistance they’d need to move is generally not how a hospital operates.

There are some exceptions. As I’ve written before, a nonprofit called Health Leads fills “prescriptions” for food, heating and other assistance as a partner with physicians in the clinics where it’s located.

It aims, its website says, to “align the forces necessary” to change our healthcare system to one that “addresses all patients’ basic resource needs.” Forces do seem to be aligning in various ways.

Hospitals, for example, have begun tackling hunger as a health issue, as U.S. News reports.

A dozen in an Ohio-based system have been feeding local residents. The system itself has opened a grocery store with fresh produce, whole grains and the like in a food desert where one of its hospitals is located.

And some of its hospitals now screen patients for food insecurity and sign those at risk up for SNAP (the food stamp program) or give them a supply of groceries when they’re discharged.

Massachusetts General Hospital also screens for food insecurity and helps with SNAP applications, as do two of its primary care clinics. The clinics also enroll pregnant women and mothers of young children in WIC, operate food pantries and offer healthy meals cooking classes.

The Affordable Care Act provides incentives for hospitals to address public health issues like food insecurity, says the former executive director of one in Connecticut that serves low-cost meals to seniors.

Links to unaffiliated social services still seem limited, however, even though the American Health Care Paradox coauthors found that both healthcare and social service providers want the more holistic approach that linkages could provide.

They’ve got barriers to overcome, including insufficient resources. But investing in systems that would support collaboration — and in the social services themselves — would pay off in lower healthcare costs.

More genuine well-being for low-income patients too.


More Seniors Facing Hunger Nationwide and in DC

March 17, 2014

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve come upon the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and its latest annual report on (what else?) hunger among seniors in the U.S.

The report encompasses all seniors facing what NFESH calls the “threat of hunger,” i.e., people 60 and over who are, at best, “marginally food secure.” These are seniors who answered in the affirmative to at least one of the survey questions the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses to measure food security or lack thereof.

In 2011, there were 8.8 million seniors who did — 15.2% of the age group.

But 6.7 million of them — 11.6% of the age group — weren’t just teetering on the brink of food insecurity. They were either what NFESH terms at “risk of hunger” or “facing hunger,” i.e., sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

The percents of seniors in these two categories were somewhat lower than what USDA reported for the U.S. population as a whole and also lower than what it reported for adults.

But while USDA’s results were statistically the same as for 2010, the percent of seniors facing hunger rose by more than 15% — to about 1.9 million.

Over the longer haul, both the risk of hunger and hunger itself have trended upward for seniors. Since 2007, when the recession set in, the number of seniors at risk of hunger increased by 49% and the number facing hunger by 48%.

Increases since 2001 were 109% and 200% respectively. The increase for the broader threat of hunger category was lower. So what we seem to be seeing is a worsening hunger situation that can’t be attributed to the economic misfortunes of the recession alone.

Both risk of and actual hunger can be attributed largely to lack of income, of course. Nearly 73% of seniors in these two categories lived below the poverty line. And of these, nearly 41% faced hunger.

As with the poverty rate itself, rates of hunger risk and actual hunger were markedly higher for blacks and Hispanics than for non-Hispanic whites.

For black seniors, the risk of hunger rate was 17.2% and the actual hunger rate 6.8%, as compared to 7.5% and 2.9% for non-Hispanic white seniors. Rates for Hispanic seniors were highest — 18.2% and just under 7%.

Rates were also very high for seniors with disabilities. About 26% were at risk of hunger, and more than 11.5% faced hunger. These figures are, in a general way, consistent with USDA’s findings on food insecurity in households with a working-age disabled member.

They’re also consistent with the extraordinarily high poverty rates consistently reported for people with disabilities in the same 18-64 age range — 27.6% in 2011, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. This is nearly twice as high as the rate for their counterparts without disabilities.

The NFESH hunger rates also, in a general way, correspond to poverty rates geographically. Virtually all the states with the highest hunger risk and actual hunger rates are in the South and Southwest.

The hunger rates don’t altogether track poverty rates, however. For example, the senior poverty rate in the District of Columbia was higher than in all but one state during the 2009-11 period — 23.2%, according to SPM.

Yet both the District’s risk of hunger and actual hunger rates were lower than those of all but nine states — 6.2% and 1.8% respectively.

No cause for celebration here, especially when the hunger rate is notably higher than in 2010. But the figures do suggest that efforts to enroll eligible seniors in SNAP (the food stamp program) and a robust network of emergency food programs make a difference.

They’re also a red flag, as are the nationwide figures. Last November, all SNAP recipients lost a portion of their benefits. The maximum for seniors living alone, as most in the NFESH hunger category seem to be, is now $11 a month less than it was before, leaving them with about $2.07 per meal.

Some SNAP recipients — seniors as well as others — will soon take a second hit because the new Farm Bill restricts the so-called “heat and eat” option, which the District and 15 states have used to boost the value of SNAP benefits, mainly for households whose utility costs are covered in their rent.

Six states have decided to protect their residents from the latest cut by increasing the heating assistance they provide to the $20 million the Farm Bill sets.

Seems to me that the District should do the same. Back-of-the-envelope calculation, based on the latest SNAP household figure, suggests this would cost a bit over $1.6 million a year — hardly a budget-breaker for a city that’s looking forward to more than $6.3 billion in revenues this fiscal year and nearly $6.7 billion next FY.

What NFESH reports for seniors is true for people of all ages. Food insecurity has a wide range of adverse health impacts. Bad for kids in other ways too.

Restoring SNAP benefits would more than pay off in healthcare and other savings, revenues generated by increased local spending and greater well-being for a whole lot of vulnerable people.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, Stateline reported that seven states have said they will block the cuts that would otherwise result from the new “heat and eat” threshold. It says the District will as well. Responding to a survey, some unidentified source said D.C. would “find a solution,” without specifying where the money would come from.

The estimated cost is lower than what I calculated — less than $1.4 million, including what the District has been spending on “utility aid.”


Why We Need Full Employment Policies Now

March 13, 2014

Awhile back, Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research published a (free) book castigating progressives for “loser liberalism.” We’ve played into the hands of conservatives, he argued, by failing to focus on how they’ve structured markets to “redistribute income upward.”

This came not long after Rortybomb blogger Mike Konszal asserted that we’ve given in to “a kind of pity-charity liberal capitalism” because we’ve abandoned the vision of a government that empowers workers.

New York Times columnist Thomas Edsell picked up on this, saying that our focus on “means-tested transfer programs” like food stamps and long-term unemployment benefits leave “the most needy and vulnerable to the vagaries of public opinion” — a big mistake because hard times like these diminish sympathy for the less fortunate.

These critiques make me feel more than a little sensitive, since I’ve tended to focus on programs designed to compensate for the economic disadvantages of the poor and near-poor.

I’m not inclined to shift my focus to how markets are structured. Which is just as well because I don’t have the expertise.

But I do think it’s time to get a little balance here. So I want to take note of a major theme in the critiques — and another (free) book, co-authored by Baker and fellow economist-blogger Jared Bernstein.

The theme is the need for government policies that will create and sustain full employment.

We’d then have an economy where increased demand for goods and services wouldn’t create a more jobs because, with some limited exceptions, everyone who wanted a job had one — and was working for as many hours as s/he wanted to or could.

Or, as economists conceive it, the unemployment rate would be low enough so that increased demand would only drive up inflation.

Full employment would obviously solve our immediate jobless worker problems — especially the very high percent of workers who’ve been jobless a long time and seemingly will remain so as long as employers can chose to summarily reject them, as many apparently do.

But as ex-Wonkblogger Ezra Klein’s review of the Baker-Bernstein book says, full employment also creates the conditions for worker power — and the wages, benefits and other working conditions that power can gain.

It’s especially important in today’s economy, where unions represent only 6.7% of private-sector workers. This, combined with other developments, e.g., opportunities for businesses to shift jobs overseas or to states with laws that weaken unions, helps explain the fact that wages have flat-lined — except for those at the tippy-top.

It’s most important for workers without a college degree — in part because many who have one are perforce currently taking jobs that don’t require college-level skills. Hence an unemployment rate for the lowest-educated workers that’s three times higher than the rate for college graduates.

This is one reason Bernstein calls full employment “the best, if not the only, friend of the working class.” But it’s not the only reason.

When he analyzes data from the Economic Policy Institute, he finds significant increases in hours worked by those in the bottom fifth of the income scale during past periods of full employment — and increases for those in the middle fifth also.

This, of course, is another way that full employment boosts wages. It would surely make a big difference now, with more than 7.2 million part-timers who’d like full-time work, but can’t get it.

Needless to say, I hope, anything that boosted working families’ incomes would narrow the growing gap between the richest and the rest. We’d probably still have a high degree of income inequality, which ought to concern us forth both economic and political reasons.

But (back to Bernstein again) the growth of our economy, i.e., the value of all the goods and services produced, would be more equally shared.

And there’d be more growth because lower and middle-income families would spend more, without contributing to the sort of credit bubble that’s been held partly responsible for our Great Recession.

And for all these reasons, there’d more tax revenues that could be used to strengthen the safety net and/or work supports — the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, and subsidized child care — for the smaller number of people who still couldn’t afford what Baker and Bernstein refer to as “a decent standard of living.”

Baker and Bernstein propose a number of ways to achieve full employment — some more controversial than others.

Most controversial perhaps is the fundamental premise. The federal government should actively intervene to restore full employment. And that will mean choosing to run deficits for awhile, rather than trying to squeeze as much as possible out of the non-defense part of the budget.

Hard to imagine in this political climate. But if enough people understood what they — and the country as a whole — would gain from a full employment economy, we might see the political will to pursue it.


Next Round in Battle to Renew Long-Term Unemployment Benefits

March 10, 2014

Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a sharp increase in the number of long-term jobless workers — 203,000 more who’d been unemployed and actively looking than in January.

This brought the average number of weeks jobless workers had been looking up to 37.1 — about 11 weeks more than most state unemployment insurance programs cover.

At least two million jobless workers have no UI benefits now, but would if Congress renewed Emergency Unemployment Compensation — and back-dated it to the end of December, when the program expired.

As I’m sure you know, Senate Democrats have been trying to pass an EUC extension since mid-December. Republicans haven’t delivered the five votes needed for the Senate to vote on the extension itself.

The ostensible hang-up is the offset, i.e., the source or sources of funds that would keep the extension from adding to the near-term deficit. But some of the potentially persuadable Republicans have further complicated matters by insisting on amendments to reform UI.

And as if that weren’t enough, they wanted the package to include a repeal of the temporary, modified cost-of-living adjustment for military pensions that was part of the December budget deal.

Well, the Senate took care of the repeal in mid-February, using a pay-for Republicans wouldn’t accept for the EUC extension. Now it’s going back to EUC again.

Majority Leader Harry Reid is calling for a six-month extension — five months shorter than the paid-for version he’d earlier proposed. He’d use savings already achieved in the new Farm Bill as the offset. Politico reports the cost at about $12 billion. That would leave about $11 billion for deficit reduction.

Seven Republicans have countered with a five-month extension. They’ve got an altogether different pay-for. And they fold in program “improvements,” including one that has little or nothing to do with unemployment compensation.

Too much to cram into one post. So I’ll deal with the pay-for here. As you’ll see, the Gang of Seven seems to have moved toward the Democratic majority. This, alas, is not an altogether good thing.

The pay-for has three parts. The first would extend so-called pension smoothing provisions that Congress earlier used to help pay for the highway bill.

Basically, pension smoothing allows employers to temporarily reduce their contributions to employee pension plans. This raises revenues for awhile because the contributions are tax-deductible.

But it then loses revenues because employers have to make up what they didn’t contribute earlier. The losses, however, fall outside the 10-year period used to estimate what federal laws will cost.

In short, it’s what the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls a “timing gimmick.” It also, as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says, raises the risk that pension funds will need a bailout, thus further increasing federal costs.

Senate Republicans shot down pension smoothing when Reid tried to use it for a three-month EUC extension — or at any rate, they blocked the bill, claiming (rightly) that he limited their chances to amend it.

A second part of the pay-for is a modified version of an amendment Senator Rob Portman wanted to offer. In its new iteration, severely disabled workers who receive UI benefits would lose the same amount from their SSDI (Supplemental Security Disability Insurance) benefits.

This too was a pay-for Reid earlier offered — and borrowed from the President’s proposed budget. But it still “uniquely burdens” disabled workers, as Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzig says.

It also undermines the work incentive in SSDI. And it establishes a terrible precedent of raiding Social Security to fund other benefits programs, as the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities warned several months ago.

The last part of the pay-for extends customs users fees through 2024. These are charges imposed for certain activities of the U.S. Customs Service, e.g., clearing merchandise for import.

So for better and worse, the Gang of Seven seems to have come round to a pay-for the Democratic majority could accept. But, as I said, it’s paired with some problematic “reforms” to the EUC program.

Politico reports that Reid may take another stab at passing an EUC bill this week. How far he’ll move to pick up the Republican votes he needs remains to be seen.

How far he should move is a daunting question.


Where Will the House Budget Committee Go From Its War on the War on Poverty?

March 6, 2014

House Republican Budget Committee staff have been very busy. They’ve produced a 240-page report that summarizes — and provides snippets of research on — 92 programs creatively attributed to the War on Poverty.

“Creatively” because some of the programs have little or no bearing on efforts to reduce poverty, e.g., homeownership assistance, the fresh fruit and vegetable promotion program for elementary school children.

By and large, the research snippets are more balanced than one might expect — a triumph of low expectations, I suppose.

Ron Garver at The Fiscal Times cites four researchers who claim the report misrepresents or manipulates their findings. We get other examples of cherry-picking and misrepresentation in the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ commentary on the report.

There’s notable bias in presentation too — for example, the bolded conclusion that “Head Start does not improve student outcomes,” though the research cited shows it sometimes does, as Jonathan Cohn at New Republic notes.

And a HUGE exception to balance for Medicaid, as one might expect from a Committee that’s likely to again propose block-granting the program and slowly starving it. “Zombie Medicaid arguments,” proclaims the Incidental Economist‘s headline.

As this indicates, policy wonks of a progressive persuasion have already weighed in on the report — mostly, though not exclusively trying to set the record straight on what the research actually tells us.

I want instead to focus on a couple of the major messages, explicit and otherwise.

The report stretches to sweep in as many programs as possible in part because one of its messages is that there are far too many of them. Congress created them “to solve different problems — and at different times,” it says. As a result, “there is little coordination among them.”

Overall, this seems to me a reasonable assessment. Where it might take us is another matter.

The House SKILLS Act, for example, blows away 18 job training programs and rolls the surviving 17 into one big block grant. It also freezes funding for seven years — virtually ensuring that some of the formerly-targeted populations lose out to the more readily employable.

The larger problem, the report says, is that many programs are “a poverty trap” because they’re means-tested, i.e., provide benefits only to people below a certain income level.

They’re thus a disincentive to work — or at least to doing your best to get ahead because if you do, you face a “high marginal tax rate.” In other words, what you lose in benefits partially offsets what you gain in earnings.

No one, so far as I know, disputes the fact of marginal tax rates. They’re an inherent feature of programs that limit eligibility to people below a certain income level.

How big they are depends on who’s estimating and for what programs. Whether they actually “discourage … [people] from making more money,” as the report says, is less certain.

The Congressional Budget Office is inclined to think they do, though only for some people already in the workforce. Economist-blogger Jared Bernstein says that leading research has found the impact to be negligible.

Again, the question is where does this take us? Not, I trust, to the elimination of all means-tested programs. But like as not, to more expansive work requirements — and to time limits, since these would override any long-term disincentive.

Welfare “reform” is thus again pronounced a rip-roaring success — one of the instances of research misuse cited in the Garver article and by CBPP.

The report is surely a set-up for further spending cuts. Casting a wide net enables the Budget Committee to come up with a total anti-poverty bill of $799 billion in 2012 — and “trillions” over the last 50 years.

Ironically, as Cohn observes, the defects the report finds in a number of anti-poverty programs imply the need to spend more money.

But Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan seems to have something more grandiose in mind than fixing fixable problems, even when that might yield some savings — and something more grandiose than slashing here, slashing there.

In his view, federal anti-poverty programs need to be “entirely reimagined,” according to an indirect quote in the Washington Post.

We get a whiff of where he might be tending in a key test the report imposes whenever remotely feasible: Does the program encourage or discourage labor force participation?

Thus, for example, all the “evidence” cited to evaluate Supplemental Security Income relates to employment. Recall that adult SSI recipients under 65 are, by definition, blind or unable “to do any substantial gainful activity.”

SNAP (the food stamp program) is also viewed through the lens of labor force participation, as well as poverty reduction, based on the cash value of the benefit. “Evidence” for its effects on reducing hunger is apparently irrelevant.

But maybe there’s no real reimagining behind the words. As The New York Times editorial board observes, the report provides a “high-minded excuse” for Congressional Republicans “to eviscerate” major safety-net programs, as they’re already hell bent on doing.

Some also seem to cherish the notion that the reforms Ryan says it’s a precursor to will persuade us that they truly care about “people who’ve fallen through the cracks.”

Not, I think, if the report foreshadows what we’ll soon see in the House budget plan.


Gray Administration Finds More Effective Way to Divert Homeless Families From Shelter

March 3, 2014

Turns out the emergency isn’t such an emergency after all, so far as Mayor Gray is concerned. Two weeks ago, he wanted a quick vote on his emergency legislation to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act. Now he’s asked the DC Council to postpone it.

As I earlier wrote, the bill would authorize provisional placements, i.e., short-term shelter for homeless families while caseworkers try to find a friend or relative to foist them off on.

I’d like to say the Mayor’s request is altogether good news, but it isn’t because it means the administration has found another way to keep homeless families out of the shelter system — or get them out swiftly, perhaps at risk to their safety.

It is good news insofar as it eliminates the remote chance that the Council would hastily approve a proposal aimed at coercing homeless families into doubled-up situations — a high risk for becoming literally homeless again.

But the Mayor hasn’t withdrawn his bill — merely asked that the Council defer consideration. “We’re pressing the pause button,” the Mayor’s spokesperson says.

More disturbing is the reason the Mayor cited for the pause. Pressure on the shelter system is easing. The Department of Human Services needs more time to determine whether the emergency measure is “as urgently needed as previously believed.”

Hardly so urgent if the current trend continues. The number of newly homeless families seeking shelter has recently dropped by about 90%.

Ordinarily one would think that fewer families seeking shelter — and gaining it because they have no safe place to stay — is good news.

But these aren’t ordinary times. DHS is now sheltering newly-homeless families in recreation centers — on cots in big open spaces that were initially divided only by the sort of flimsy partitions the Red Cross throws up during a natural disaster.

An administrative law judge ruled that this violated the HSRA — as it surely does, since the law, honored more in the breach than the observance, requires “apartment-style” shelter units for families.

But the ruling applies only to the families for whom the complaint was filed. DHS is reportedly putting in sturdier partitions. The families, however, are still all in one big room. No real privacy, of course. Nor safety, since any adult in the center can just walk into their space.

And the families can stay in their space only at night. They have to pack up and leave first thing in the morning and can’t get back in until 9:00 at night — not even then unless they return to the intake center, as Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless recently testified.

And, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute adds, not unless it’s again freezing-cold outside. Otherwise, they may have no place that’s even marginally safe to spend the night.

Needless to say, I hope, working parents can’t return to the intake center over and over again without putting their jobs at risk. Parents who do return have to hang out someplace, with all their belongings and their kids, well into the evening.

So it should hardly surprise us that the number of new shelter placements has dropped precipitously — or that families in the rec centers are “finding other options on their own,” as DHS Director David Berns told the Interagency Council on Homelessness last week.

I’d guess these are mostly doubled-up arrangements like those the Mayor’s bill would constrain homeless families to agree to. As I said before, they’re inherently unstable — even if not a sequential couple of days here, couple of weeks there.

Others may be egregiously unsafe. We know that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women with children. We know that they often return to their abusers because they’ve nowhere else to go when the time they can spend in a shelter runs out.

Might some make the same choice if the only shelter for them and their kids is a partitioned-off nighttime space in a rec center?

In short, the rec center placements are a pernicious form of diversion. Berns seemingly felt he had no other option.

Spaces at the DC General family shelter weren’t opening up fast enough — in part because DHS couldn’t rapidly re-house as many families as it needed to.

All the low-cost motel rooms it had contracted for were full. It couldn’t find any more, Berns told his ICH colleagues. So he concluded, “We’re stuck.”

Maybe. But I can’t persuade myself that the Mayor couldn’t have unstuck the agency if he didn’t view diversion, by any means possible, as an appealing solution to what his chief of staff referred to as “a crisis of too many families in shelter.”

As Berensin pointed out, the Mayor found $9 million to gift housed District residents with new Supercans. For that, he could have provided hundreds of homeless families with locally-funded vouchers to subsidize market-based rents.

He could create vouchers for about 140 families* right now, using only the additional revenues the Chief Financial Officer recently projected for the current fiscal year.

Subsidizing housing would be a whole lot cheaper than sheltering the homeless families — and altogether better for them too, especially those the administration is warehousing in rec centers.

* This estimate is based on the average 2012 cost of a tenant-based voucher for a three-person family — the average size of families in shelter now. It may, therefore, be somewhat too high, though Berensin’s testimony suggests otherwise.


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