New Hope for Left Out Homeless Children and Youth

August 4, 2014

How many children and youth are homeless in our country? We still don’t know. What we do know is that many of them don’t qualify for programs and services funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bipartisan bills introduced in both the House and Senate aim to close this gap in the safety net. Whether they will fare better than earlier efforts to expand the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use remains to be seen.

What’s the Problem?

The U.S. Department of Education reports that well over 1.1 million homeless children and youth attended public schools during the 2011-12 school year.

But this is an under-count — in part because not all school districts reported data. Even those that did probably didn’t know how many homeless students they had because, for obvious reasons, homeless kids don’t always ask for help. Nor are they always easy for school personnel to identify.

And, of course, the reported number doesn’t include infants and toddlers — or all somewhat older preschoolers either, the National Associations for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports. Homeless youth who’ve dropped out of school or graduated aren’t in the tally either.

Only some fraction of homeless children and youth — counted and otherwise — can get into a shelter funded in whole or in part by HUD because they and their parents have some place else to stay and aren’t demonstrably at immediate risk of being out on the streets.

They’re surely at risk of having to find another accommodating friend or relative — in some reported cases, because the place they’re staying is unhealthful or unsafe. But even in the best of cases, they’ll be moving from one place to another. And we know that instability is bad for kids.

The families are also ineligible for the limited-term housing assistance that HUD’s grantees provide — and for the services that aim to improve their finances so they can afford market-rate rents.

The children and youth are, however, homeless under the part of the McKinney-Vento Act that applies to public education — hence the count cited above. They may also be homeless under other federal laws.

What the Bills Would Do

The bills address several major problems advocates have identified. The largest is the restrictive definition that bars so many homeless families from HUD-funded aid — unless and until they’re out on the streets or about to be.

First off, the bills would enable families to qualify if they stand to lose their housing within 30 days, instead of the current two weeks.

Second they would extend the definition of “homeless” to children and youth who are verified as such by administrators of seven federal programs, in addition to HUD’s.

So, for example, children and youth who are living doubled-up with friends or relatives or staying in a cheap motel would become eligible for HUD-funded services, as they already are for those public schools must provide.

A somewhat similar provision extends eligibility to families and unaccompanied youth who are certified by a public housing authority as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Communities wouldn’t have to make these newly-eligible homeless families and youth a priority. But they could do more for them than HUD rules now allow. The bills, in fact, prohibit the agency from giving priority to any homeless population in its decisions on grant awards.

HUD currently gives top priority to people who are chronically homeless, i.e., those who have a severe disability and have been spending their nights in a shelter or “a place not meant for human habitation” for at least a year or recurrently.

Obviously not conducive to extending services for families and unaccompanied youth who’ve been couch-surfing.

Lastly, the bills require HUD to make the results of the HMIS (homeless management information system) reports that grantees must submit available online to anyone who’s interested — and to Congress.

We wouldn’t, of course, see personally-identifiable information about clients. But we would have access to better data than the one-night counts provide because HUD would have to report cumulative HMIS figures.

So we’d have a better fix on the extent of the problem. Of course, we’d also need more funding to address it — and to do so without shorting the needs of homeless adults who don’t have children in their care.

First, however, we need more members of Congress signed on to the bills. Those of you who have voting representation in Congress have several opportunities to help, including a quick and easy e-mail. We who live in the District of Columbia can pass the word along.

 


Live the Wage Challenge Offers Bare Glimpse of Minimum Wage Workers’ Struggles

July 29, 2014

Not long after I started this blog, I raised questions about the value of the Food Stamp Challenge. This exercise, as you may know, calls on participants to feed themselves — and if they choose, their families — on the cash equivalent of the average SNAP (food stamp) benefit.

This week, we’re in the midst of a different sort of challenge. Elected officials, community leaders, congregations and the likes of thee and me are urged to live, for a week, on what a full-time minimum wage worker has to spend, less housing costs and taxes. (But see below.)

The minimum wage here is $7.25 per hour — the federal minimum that fully phased in five years ago. It remains the minimum in 28 states and the U.S. territories.

The challenge sponsors obviously want Congress to raise the wage, which it surely won’t unless and until Democrats gain a majority in the House and a larger majority in the Senate. Either that or a very different sort of Republican leadership to work with.

But this in itself doesn’t argue against the challenge. The aim, I take it, is to call attention in a new, social-media-oriented way to how far the minimum wage falls short of daily living costs.

We’re encouraged to tweet our experience and/or share it in other ways. Some of the handful of Democrats in Congress who said they’d participate have done just that. None of them, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, needs the experience to support the minimum wage increase that’s still stuck in the Senate.

Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio says, “[I]t’s important for those of us in leadership positions … to make sure … we really understand the deep challenges people face.”

But Live the Wage, as the week-long challenge is called, will do no such thing — something the guidance generally acknowledges, but understates.

The minimum wage budget for the week is $77. The organizers arrive at this by deducting average taxes that are roughly double the worker’s share of payroll taxes and $176.48, which is said to be the average for housing.

The average housing cost then is about $706 a month. I’m told this figure comes from the Economic Policy Institute and represents the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

It still seems to me very low — and way too low in many parts of the country. And of course, the apartment would be awfully crowded for a minimum wage worker with children.

More importantly, the $77 doesn’t exclude only housing and taxes. Challenge-takers don’t have to deal with any other “long-term and inflexible costs,” as the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s alert to the challenge reassuringly notes.

So loan payments, healthcare and childcare costs are all explicitly off-budget. So, for obvious reasons, are fees many low-income workers incur because they don’t have bank accounts — or in some cases do, but get paid with debit cards.

Bottom line, according to the guidance, is that the $77 must cover only meals, groceries, recreation and transportation. But recall that transportation doesn’t include car payments or insurance.

As with the Food Stamp Challenge, however, the most important limit is that it’s very brief — and can end whenever the going gets too tough.

Congressman Ryan has stocked up on diapers, but if the baby needs more, he’ll surely buy them — just as he snagged a pork chop after airport security officers took his jars of peanut butter and jelly during his Food Stamp Challenge.

That’s okay, the challenge guidance says. The point is “to give a glimpse of how little the minimum wage provides a working family in this country.”

But, it adds, no one is “expected or encouraged to default on any legal, financial, work or family obligations.” And surely no participant will.

So no one’s going to glimpse the decisions about which bills to pay and not, the acute pressures when the car breaks down or the kid gets sick — or the breadwinner, for that matter. No one’s going to feel despair when there’s not enough money for diapers.

If the Live the Wage challenge actually raises awareness among the friends, relatives, Twitter followers and the like that participants are to share their glimpses with, then perhaps it’s all to the good.

But I’ve got a hard time believing that anyone who’d support a minimum wage increase doesn’t already know that $7.25 an hour isn’t enough to live on, since a large majority of voters do.

And the glimpses aren’t going to make a whit of difference to Republican leaders in Congress.

If they had the slightest interest in what life below the poverty line is like, they’d be better off listening to what the real experts like Witnesses for Hunger Tianna Gaines Turner and Barbie Izquierdo have to say.


Congressman Ryan Unveils His Safety Net Reform Plan

July 28, 2014

Congressman Paul Ryan took up the cause of anti-poverty policy reform not long after his bid to become Vice President failed. He visited local programs, accompanied (and probably selected) by the ultra-conservative founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

He issued a big — and hardly objective — review of federal programs attributed to the War on Poverty. He held five hearings purportedly designed to help lay the groundwork for a new and better approach.

And last Thursday, he finally announced some proposals at an event hosted by the right-leaning — but not radically right-wing — American Enterprise Institute.

The big headliner should come as no surprise to anyone who’s even casually familiar with his persistent celebrations of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and/or his annual budget plans.

He wants to create a block grant. It’s not “a garden variety block grant,” he says, because states would have to meet certain requirements. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ….

And if our experience with eminently-flexible block grants tells us anything, it portends trouble for low-income people.

The proposed Opportunity Grant would initially be a pilot. States could submit plans to consolidate 11 diverse safety net programs, e.g., SNAP (the food stamp program), several forms of housing assistance, TANF, the block grants for child care and community development.

States would get the same total amount of funding they’re entitled to now. If another recession or a natural disaster put more people at risk of hunger, they could, if they chose, put more money into SNAP, but only by reducing other types of assistance.

Ryan’s formal proposal says that some counter-cyclical component might be added to boost assistance during recessions. It might not be more funding, however, but instead a requirement that states set aside some of the money they receive in a sort of rainy day fund.

But if food, housing, home energy and other costs rise, as they surely will, the participating states will get squeezed, just as they’ve been squeezed by the flat-funded TANF block grant — and, like as not, with similar results.

States would have to spend the funds on “people in need.” Aid would have to go first, but not exclusively to people living below the poverty line.

States would not, however, have to sustain their own spending levels on safety net programs. As Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warns, they would have “tantalizing opportunities” to use their block grant funds instead — as in fact, they have with their federal TANF funds.

States would have to see to it that everyone who can work does — or engages in preparation for work. This will require significant expenditures because states currently don’t have job training programs big enough to enroll everyone whose benefits would hinge on their participation.

They would also have to commit funds to expanding their networks of service providers. And they would have to give folks their choice of providers.

Whatever their choice, they’d get a single caseworker to help them develop an “opportunity plan,” oversee compliance and dole out sanctions. Bonuses too perhaps. The caseworker would apparently also dole out benefits, based on some sort of needs assessment.

This could mean a smaller (or no) SNAP benefit in exchange for, say, a low-cost car loan. Or it could mean a whole battery of benefits and services for some people in need and nothing — or much less — for others. “Fundamental math,” as CBPP’s top-level TANF expert says.

And where are the states going to get all those additional caseworkers? Here again we see less money available for programs that help meet people’s basic needs, she says elsewhere. Less perhaps for job training and other services as well.

Lastly, states would have to engage an independent entity to evaluate success according to outcomes identified in their plans. Success here is moving “people out of poverty and into independence.”

But a key measure for providers would be how many people “they help move off welfare.” This, as TANF has taught us, leads to a “work first” approach, i.e., one that requires participants to take any job they can get as soon as they can get it. Legal Momentum reports the dismal results.

In short, the OG pilot is for all the world like TANF on steroids, though with some accommodation for elderly and disabled people.

And to what end? The integrated, innovative, localized approaches Ryan says will be gained by getting “the federal bureaucracy” out of the way are already possible, as the state-level initiative that CLASP and partners are supporting shows. Likewise the Catholic Charities programs he praises.

The pilot is only one of the proposals Ryan tees up to “make federal aid both more effective and more accountable.” Some have — and could gain further — bipartisan support. Some, one hopes, not.

For example, Ryan proposes other block grants — one for Head Start, which he still insists in an utter failure, and two for the various federal funding streams that flow to public elementary and secondary education programs.

I felt as if I were suddenly transported back to the early days of the Reagan administration.

Well, Ryan claims that he’s just trying to start a conversation, as he also did when he launched his hearings. My own sense is that we should begin by talking about how these various proposals for “expanding opportunity in America,” as he styles them, comport with his budget plans.

The latest, for example, would cut SNAP spending by $137 billion over the next 10 years. And, as the Coalition on Human Needs notes, other programs that could be rolled into the “super-block grant” are in the part of the budget that Ryan’s plan would cut by about twice as much as sequestration requires.

“My work on poverty is a separate thing,” he’s said. Tell that to the families that are running out of food because their SNAP benefits were cut — or the parents of the more than 5.6 million preschoolers who are eligible for federally-subsidized child care, but can’t get it.

 


New Insights Into Housing (In)security for DC’s Lowest-Income Residents

July 24, 2014

Nobody who lives in the District of Columbia — or follows housing issues — needs to be told that rents are too damn high here. Nor that they consume an inordinate portion of low-income residents’ budgets.

A just-released study by the Urban Institute is nonetheless newsworthy because it provides many and diverse figures on our affordable housing situation, along with details on our homeless population and its needs — met and unmet.

The full study covers not only the District, but other jurisdictions in the Washington metro area. So we get comprehensive figures and interesting opportunities for comparisons.

As is always the case, however, the figures for the District understate affordability problems because they’re based on the median income for the entire area.

For the 2009-11 period covered by the housing portion of the study, that was $106,100 for a family of four. By way of rough comparison, the median income for four-person D.C. families was $84,400 last year.

But we’ve got to go with what we’ve got. So here are a few of the many things one can extract about what the study labels housing security in the District. As you’ll see, it might more appropriately be labeled housing insecurity for the lowest-income residents.

Housing Burdens

The Urban Institute, like most analysts, uses the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s affordability measures.

HUD sets 30% of household income as the affordability cut-off. A household that pays more is said to have a housing-cost burden. A household that pays more than half its income has a severe housing-cost burden.

Slightly more than half of all District households were, to some degree, cost-burdened — and 28% severely so. But housing-cost burdens were vastly more common for the District’s 63,700 or so extremely low-income households, i.e., those with incomes at or below 30% of the area median.

All but 16% of them paid more than 30% of their income for housing — generally rent, plus basic utilities, though 18% were classified as homeowners.

And nearly two-thirds (66%) had a severe housing-cost burden. This is nearly three times greater than the percent for very low-income households, i.e., those in the next income tier.

Rental Housing Availability

The rental housing market was — and still is — extremely tight. Of the total rent units the Urban Institute identified, only 8% were vacant during the 2009-11 period.

So the old law of supply and demand helps explain the housing-cost burdens for lower-income residents, as well as the cost burdens for some much better-off households.

Only 26% of the units rented for less than $800 a month — roughly what an extremely low-income family of four could afford.

But the story is more complicated. About a third of these units were occupied by higher-income households. And only 0.9% of them were vacant.

So the rental housing market was shy 22,100 units that extremely low-income families could have lived in without a cost burden.

More units affordable for very low-income households were occupied by those with higher incomes. But because the District has more such units — and because more were vacant — the Urban Institute finds no shortage.

Subsidized Housing

In 2012, HUD subsidized roughly 33,900 housing units in the District. Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers accounted for 41% — some of them vouchers awarded to developers so they could charge affordable rents and some given directly to eligible households, which could then rent on the open market.

Public housing accounted for an additional 25% of the affordable units. Subsidies for the remaining 11,600 units came from a mix of programs. It’s not clear that all these units were affordable for the District’s lowest-income households.

What is clear is that there were far more extremely-low income households than HUD-subsidized units — and that the District’s own voucher program fell far short of closing the gap.

Looking only at renter households, the Urban Institute reports 43 subsidized units for every 100 extremely low-income households during the 2009-11 period. This, recall, is before HUD’s budget got hit by sequestration.

What’s Missing

As informative — and depressing — as all these numbers are, they tell only part of the story. We need also to consider where the affordable units were.

As the Urban Institute says, “they may not be in neighborhoods of opportunity that were transit accessible, close to jobs, or had amenities like grocery stores.” For the District, this is probably more apt now as gentrification has spread.

We need also to consider whether the affordable units were livable. The recent Washington Post exposé of conditions at Park Southern tells us that some surely weren’t. Leaks, mold, rotting dead birds on the stairwell, etc.

Not a unique case, by any means, as a recent NPR story indicates.

What Now?

It would be nice to end this long post with a policy solution. The best I can do isn’t good enough.

Clearly, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute says, we need to invest more in affordable housing. Like the Urban Institute, it also says we should increase the total number of housing units, since this could relieve the demand pressures that are driving up costs.

The”we” here ought to be the federal government, as well as our local government and private sources. But it almost surely won’t be any time soon — even if the House doesn’t altogether get its way on what the HUD budget should be.

We need also to help extremely and very low-income households join the higher income tiers. An obviously large and varied agenda here.

 


DC Bans the Box, Gives Returning Citizens a Better Shot at Jobs

July 21, 2014

An estimated 60,000 District of Columbia residents have criminal records. Roughly 8,000 return to the community each year after serving time behind bars.

And about half of them will be back behind bars within three years. One, though not the only reason is that they can’t get legal, paying work. And one reason they can’t is that their job applications get tossed before they’re read.

That’s going to change. And it ought to change their extraordinarily high unemployment rate — 46%, according to a 2011 survey. Here’s why.

Last week, the DC Council passed what’s commonly known as a “ban the box” bill. Like others of its kind, the new law prohibits generally employers from including queries about criminal records in their job applications.*

They thus can’t automatically screen out anyone and everyone who’s ever been arrested, charged and/or convicted of a crime. Nor, in the District’s bill, can they ask about any of these during interviews.

They may, however, ask about convictions — or conduct a background check — after they’ve made a conditional offer of employment, i.e., one contingent on what they learn about the candidate’s criminal offenses or other matters they’ve said they’d look into.

They may then withdraw the offer, but only for a “legitimate business reason.” For this, the law establishes criteria, e.g., the responsibilities the candidate would have, how long ago s/he committed the crime(s).

But they don’t have to explain an about-face, as they would have in the original version. Nor does the rejected candidate have a right to sue, though s/he can file a claim with the Office of Human Rights — a lot of hassle for minimal compensation, the DC Jobs Council said.

For these reasons, as well as others, the law isn’t as strong as it might be.

Employers with fewer than 11 workers get a free pass, for example. This, as the Employment Justice Center’s Deputy Director testified is a large loophole because even big projects in some industries, e.g., construction, often include small contractors.

But the bill is ever so much better than nothing. And it might have been nothing without the exemptions and other concessions to employer concerns.

In fact, it’s somewhat better than the revised version lead sponsor Councilmember Wells produced in an effort to accommodate the altogether predictable complaints from some business interests, e.g., the local restaurant association.

So count the about-to-be law as a piece of good news in the midst of so much truly terrible stuff.

The District will join the dozen states that have banned the box. And with a stronger law than most. Only four of the states cover private employers. And only one — Hawaii — unequivocally prohibits conviction history inquiries before an offer is made.

The law will surely open doors for some returning citizens — and citizens who returned some considerable time ago. It will also keep doors open for those who are working because the law extends similar protections to employees. Some, we know, have been fired when their criminal records came to light.

The law won’t be a cure-all, however. And no one, to my knowledge, thinks it will be.

The Center for Court Excellence survey cited above indicates some employment barriers beyond the scope of any “ban the box” law, e.g., lack of a pre-incarceration work history and/or in-demand skills and credentials.

There are others — extraordinary difficulties in getting housing, for example. Some Ban the Box Coalition members advocated an expansion of the law to remedy this. So there’s more work to do on the policy front.

But experience tells us that anti-discrimination laws can go only so far — even when they’re strongly enforced, which they generally aren’t. I rather doubt the District’s “ban the box” law will prove an exception, since it’s complaint-based.

Management consultant Wendy Powell argues that such laws “can provide false hope to candidates with a felony conviction” because their job histories will inevitably have a gap. And that, she says, is always a legitimate basis for inquiry.

Whether the criminal record emerges during an interview or, as she recommends, is preempted by voluntary disclosure, employers will have to give returning citizens a chance.

The same, I think, is true when they decide whether to exercise their “legitimate business interest” because they’ve got wiggle room if they’re predisposed to use it — not in all cases perhaps, but I can imagine many.

Ultimately, the success of the new law will depend on whether employers fully embrace the intent. The more that do, the more that will, I think.

* The bill exempts employers that provide programs, services and/or direct care to minors and “vulnerable adults.” This, I’m told, basically reaffirms a provision stating that the pre-offer provisions don’t apply when a federal or local laws and rules require consideration of an applicant’s criminal history.

 


Less Known, But More Urgent Social Security Shortfall

July 17, 2014

I supposed you’ve read that the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money long about 2035. This date applies to the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund — that one that helps pay for workers’ retirement benefits and the benefits their dependent family members may ultimately receive.

The Trust Fund for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) is in far worse shape. The latest report from the trustees projects insolvency in 2016. Unless Congress does something PDQ, the so-called DI Trust Fund will be able to pay only about 80% of benefits.

They’re already far from generous — currently, on average, about $1,146 a month for disabled workers themselves or less than $1,000 if eligible spouses and children are included. Yet they’re a major source of income for most recipients and their families.

In 2010, for example, they accounted for more than half of total family income for 78.5% of beneficiaries. For nearly one in three, they were the only income source.

Benefits notwithstanding, nearly one in five lived in poverty. And well over a third (37.4%) were poor or near-poor, i.e., living below 150% of the federal poverty line.

These are hardly families who can afford a 20% cut.

Congress could avert it, at least temporarily, by shifting funds from the OASI Trust Fund to the DI Trust Fund, as it did in 1994. But this Congress isn’t that Congress.

Hence a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, whose parent organization concurrently released a fact-packed brief on SSDI.

The lead speaker, Senator Sherrod Brown, argued that Democrats should push for an expansion of Social Security, along the lines that he, among others, has proposed. The best defense is a good offense, as they say.

Unfortunately, as things stand now, SSDI needs a good defense too. Because it’s been subject to a barrage of negative media coverage.

Brown says that the attacks on SSDI are actually “backdoor attempts” to dismantle the whole social insurance system, which Republicans still want to privatize, i.e., convert into something like a compulsory IRA.

I’m not so sure. But some surely are casting aspersions on SSDI — and its beneficiaries. Though SSDI is basically an insurance policy that they and their employers have paid for, much of what we hear recalls attacks on safety net programs.

It’s rife with fraud. People perfectly able to work are gaming the system — in this case, with help from rapacious lawyers. Look at all those “squishy” diagnoses, e.g. some musculoskeletal disorder that’s allegedly excruciatingly painful.

The fuel for this fire, I think, is essentially the same as the source of the impending — but easily avertable — crisis.

Many more workers are now receiving SSDI than in the program’s earlier days — about 8.9 million, as compared to 1.4 million in 1970.

And we saw an uptick when the recession set in, though not nearly so large as the uptick in claims. (Notwithstanding alleged laxities, fewer than 40% of claims are ultimately approved.)

Social Security’s Chief Actuary, Stephen Goss, told the CAP Fund audience that the increase over time was predicted, even before the recession, because the largest drivers are demographic.

First, we’ve had a 43% increase in the working age population, i.e., adults between the ages of 20 and 64, since 1980.

Baby boomers are partly responsible for that, of course, And they’re now old enough to be at much higher risk for disabling conditions. A 50-year-old is twice as likely to be disabled as a 40-year-old and a 60-year-old twice as likely as a 50-year-old, according to another CAP brief.

At the same time, far more women are working — and for quite a long time, as they must to qualify for SSDI. So the pool of workers who’ve become eligible when disabilities make it impossible for them to continue doing the same kind of work — or any other kind they might qualify for — has increased for this reason as well.

Expansions in the potential pool tell only part of the story. Roughly half of the disabled workers receiving SSDI benefits have, at most, a high school education. They’re likely to have had jobs that required a lot of standing, walking, lifting and the like.

They’re not likely to have in-demand skills that would enable them to shift into more sedentary occupations — something the Social Security authorities would consider before approving their claims.

Policy changes also help explain why the SSDI rolls have grown. These include the phased-up increase in the age workers can qualify for full retirement benefits — at which point SSDI recipients are automatically shifted over to the OASI program.

Basically, we’ve still got baby boomers — and some younger disabled workers as well — who wouldn’t be receiving SSDI if Congress hadn’t raised their full retirement age to 67.

What this means is that the pressure on the SSDI program will eventually diminish because the boomers will all reach full retirement age.

This is why some recommend that a slightly larger percent of payroll taxes be allocated to SSDI. An initial shift from 1.8% to 2.8% of the total 12.4% collected, with smaller shifts thereafter would keep both trust funds wholly solvent until 2033, according to the Social Security actuaries.

Another option Goss has mentioned would be a small increase in the payroll tax. Or, he adds, Congress could just let the benefits cuts happen.

As if we don’t already have enough poor people in this country.

 


Why Not Just Give Poor People Money?

July 14, 2014

Not long ago, a Chinese millionaire decided to invite some homeless people for a fancy free meal, with $300 checks as a post-dessert treat. The operators of the shelter he contacted agreed to supply the guests, but only if he donated the money to the shelter instead.

Some of the guests might use their cash gifts to buy alcohol and drugs, the executive director reportedly said.

The story provoked some sputtering and muttering, as you might imagine. It also gave rise to a New York Times op-ed that teed up an idea that’s been around for awhile. Why not just give the poor cash?

This, in fact, has been done, to a limited extent, in some developing countries. Professor Christopher Blattman, who wrote the op-ed, provides examples, including some trial programs he and colleagues had assessed.

For the most part, recipients used the money to improve their lives. Some extremely poor women who were given $150, plus a few days of business skills training nearly doubled their earnings, invested in some “durable assets” and, on average, tripled their savings.

Even homeless men and drug users in Liberian slums bought themselves some clothes and “ate and lived better.”

In most of the trials, people worked more after they got the grants, though the trials apparently didn’t impose work requirements, as our major cash assistance program does — and SNAP (the food stamp program) for people like at least some of the Liberian slum-dwellers.

Would handing out cash, with no strings attached, work here — and on a large scale? We don’t know. The U.S. projects Blattman mentions required families to set goals and report on progress, make efforts to “build up their human capital,” etc.

What we do know is that private donors, public officials and nonprofits like the New York City shelter are likely to take a dim view of addressing poverty in the simplest, most direct way, i.e., by giving poor people money.

Even one of the projects that linked cash to goal-setting and the like encountered “mistrust from donors and other nonprofits who held hard to the view that poor people can’t make good decisions,” Blattman says.

This is a commonly held view, I think. In some cases, it’s a form of blaming. People are poor because they made bad decisions — didn’t finish high school (or go on to college), had children before they were married, etc.

And how many stories have we read of the extravagant and/or unhealthful things people buy with their food stamps? How many proposals to keep them from using their benefits this way?

We see something of the same view in widely-reported experiments designed to show that poor people make bad decisions through no fault of their own, but because their brains are overloaded with worries about not having enough money. Note the assumption here.

Awhile ago, blogger Matt Bruenig figured that we could cut poverty in half by giving every American about $3,000 a year, which we could each use however we chose.

This was perhaps more a thought-provoker than a serious proposal — a way, as he said, of showing that the obstacle to “dramatic poverty reduction” is politics, not the inherent complexity of devising effective solutions. Nor the cost.

Yet he’s not enthusiastic about simply giving everyone who’s poor enough money to lift them over the poverty line. This, he says, “would probably cause intolerable numbers of people to drop out of the labor market.”

Reihan Salam at the National Review objects to “unconditional income support” — and for somewhat similar reasons. “[I]t might help the most motivated poor people with the strongest social networks to raise their earnings potential,” he says. But it would harm the rest because they wouldn’t engage in gainful employment.

The biggest worry for him, it seems, isn’t what this would do to our economy, but rather that the poor would miss out on the personal benefits work provides.

Brink Lindsey, a “bleeding heart” libertarian whom Salam cites, elaborates on this point at length. “Joblessness,” he says, “means not only lack of income, but also lack of status, lack of identity, and lack of direction. It is the path … to anomie and despair.”

I suppose, in our society, this is generally true, though we can all think of exceptions — just as we can all think of jobs that, if anything, impair one’s sense of personal identity.

What’s interesting to me is that both Salam and Lindsey assume that poor people will make a decision that’s bad for them. They’ll forgo personal fulfillment and chose “anomie and despair” instead.

I doubt that giving no-strings cash to poor people is the solution to poverty. Among other things, it’s unimaginable that we’d give them enough. But, as Blattman says, “why not try” and see what happens?

 


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