One Thumb Up for Washington Post Piece on TANF Benefits Cut-Offs

August 24, 2016

The Washington Post celebrated the 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families with a well-meaning, but disappointing article on District of Columbia families who may soon lose what remains of their benefits.

It’s well-meaning because it focuses on what will happen unless the DC Council passes a bill to extend benefits for at least some of them. And it includes some potent warnings about costs the District will incur if it cuts off their cash assistance, thinking to save money.

But it doesn’t make the best case it could have for the extensions the Council is considering. And it leaves out an important piece of the cost issue.

First off, the TANF mom it chooses to focus on isn’t “the typical District welfare client,” as it claims. She and her partner live in a subsidized apartment. So her family’s receiving far more in safety net benefits than most who’ll lose what they get from TANF.

We don’t know how many TANF families are living with accommodating friends or relatives because they don’t have subsidized housing. But we do know that TANF was recently the most common source of reported income for homeless families the District counted, i.e., those in shelters or limited-term transitional housing.

More importantly, the profiled mother has worked in a series of jobs and has a certificate in emergency medicine technology. She says the couldn’t keep working because she couldn’t afford child care for the toddler she then had.

But if I understand correctly, she could have a childcare subsidy now — and for at least awhile longer if she found a new job. Both her work history and the unpaid work she’s doing now to comply with her TANF work activity requirement strongly suggest she could.

Many TANF parents have what are commonly referred to as severe barriers to work. We don’t have current public information on those who’ve exceeded — or will soon exceed — the rigid time limit the District imposes.

But a study of the caseload before the District set the time limit identified a range of barriers — some not swiftly (if ever) overcome, e.g., physical and mental health problems. At least one — learning disabilities — will last until the affected parents’ children are too old for the families to qualify for TANF.

Others, as I remarked before, could prove temporary if the parents have more time and the opportunities they need — a chance to complete high school or a GED program, for example, or to keep looking for a job so they won’t have to divert their energies and perhaps endanger their health the way some adults in extreme poverty must.

These are among the “hardship” cases that would gain extensions of their TANF benefits under the bill awaiting Council action — and, I should add, a formal response from the Bowser administration.

By far and away the largest number of District residents who’ll suffer extraordinary hardships if they lose their benefits have a work barrier they can’t possibly surmount in the near term because they’re children.

Plunging them into the deepest depths of poverty will put them at high risk of lasting mental and/or physical health damages.¬† So they’re like to have severe barriers when they’re old enough to work.

There’s a reason to refer to the potentially reprieved parents and children as hardship cases — one the Post article fails to mention.

The District could extend benefits for a fifth of its total caseload, based on a combination of domestic violence and “hardship,” however it defines that, and still use its federal funds for the families’ benefits. Benefits here include not only the cash assistance the article focuses on, but all the work-related services the program provides.

Any discussion of the cost of extensions should include this significant fact, as well as the costs of sweeping all the time-limited families out of TANF. Roughly 5,800 of them, including nearly 10,400 children will get swept out in October unless the Council and Mayor agree to reprieve at least some of them.*

But more families will reach the time limit every month unless and until the District adopts an extensions policy, as virtually every state already has. The cumulative impact is something else I’d like to have seen mentioned.

Ah well, that’s what blogs are for.

* These are figures the Department of Human Service recently provided, not to me or for public consumption. They are substantially lower than figures the department has reported earlier, for reasons as yet undetermined.

 

 


Measuring Poverty the Way We Understand It

August 22, 2016

It’s a well-known fact that the official poverty measure we use doesn’t accurately tell us how many poor people live in the U.S. It was never supposed to be more than an initial baseline for War on Poverty programs.

But here we are, more than 50 years later, and it’s still the basis for setting income eligibility levels for most safety net programs, plus some others that fund services in low-income communities.

The Census Bureau has a better measure — prudently named the Supplemental Poverty Measure so as to not imply it will supplant the official measure. It’s still unfinished in some important ways, e.g., sufficient adjustments for differences housing costs.

But even a more refined measure would still produce poverty rates based on pre-tax income, plus the income equivalent of some near-cash benefits, e.g., SNAP (food stamps), and the refundable tax credits.

We’ve had other measures proposed. Some economists, for example, recommend a consumption-based measure — basically, what a household owns, spends and, in some cases, has through government spending.

A team at Columbia University, supported by the Robin Hood Foundation is using a different definition to track poverty in New York City. The aim, the Foundation says, is to “take a deeper, more realistic look at disadvantage.”

This, we see, involves several things. First, the researchers use Census data, its poverty thresholds, adjusted for local rental housing costs, and an adapted version of the SPM to measure poverty in the city.

Second, the team surveys a sample of households in all income brackets, asking questions to identify those that experience “material hardships, i.e., deprivations due to lack of money.

In other words, the project uses a concept of poverty more like the way we actually think about it — not how much money a family has, but whether it has enough to meet basic needs. The survey implicitly defines them as food, housing, utilities and medical and dental care.

A household that sometimes comes up short is said to experience “moderate material hardship.” The hardship becomes “severe” if a household experiences it chronically or acutely — for example, is so short of money for housing that it has to move to a shelter.

The hardship concept isn’t altogether novel here in the U.S. For example, a household that has very low food security, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it, can’t always afford to buy enough food for everyone to have enough to eat.

The Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation includes a section it classifies as “adult well-being.” The questions are actually about the household’s well-being, including food security, the conditions of the housing it lives in and whether it can afford housing-related expenses.

SIPP uses the same sample of households repeatedly — some for as long as four years. It’s similar, in this way, to the third aspect of the “deeper, more realistic look” that gives the Robin Hood Foundation project its name.

It too tracks the select material hardships over time by surveying the same households for several years running. But it’s focused on them, rather than participation in programs that compensate for lack of enough income.

The survey does, however, include some questions about receipt of public benefits as part of its effort to localize the SPM. And it asks what I infer are half a dozen questions about requests for help and responses. (I’ve looked in vain for a copy of the survey itself.)

The project aims ultimately to capture the dynamics of poverty — and certain related material hardships. Understanding them, the partners say, will better equip policymakers, nonprofits and private-sector donors to develop solutions.

We’ve had three reports thus far. Each slices and dices the survey results differently. Here’s a handful of things we learn about the poverty/hardship dynamics — none, I suspect, peculiar to New York, except at the data level.

Far more New Yorkers experienced at least one material hardship than fell below the relevant poverty line. Far more, in fact, experienced at least one severe hardship. Poverty was nevertheless a major factor, as you’d guess.

Very few New Yorkers lived in poverty both when first surveyed and a year later. Slightly more fell into or rose out of it, presumably by losing or gaining income, certain cash-equivalent benefits or both.

Material hardship seems more persistent. Of the eye-popping 48% identified as experiencing at least one, nearly half still experienced it — or maybe some other — a year later, if not longer. (The first survey, as reported, didn’t ask how long respondents had already experienced the hardships covered.)

Not all New Yorkers who suffered a material hardship sought help. But majorities did — more for some needs than others. Very few said they got all the help they needed — at least, within the short timeframe the survey then covered.

Help they may have received somewhat later didn’t do all that much good. Slightly less than a third no longer experienced the hardship — a troubling finding for the project’s target audience.

Help did even less to lift households out of poverty, though the survey asks about help that could have — finding a job, for example, or getting public benefits. Only 2% more households that said they got no help remained poor than those that said they got all the help they needed.

On the other hand, getting timely help apparently averted poverty for a higher percent of those that swiftly sought it and said they got all needed. This may include people who sought help with a health problem, rather than a hardship that a health problem may have caused.*

Some of the dynamics Poverty Tracker reports aren’t altogether new. The Census Bureau, for example, has used its survey data to follow near-poor people, including their lapses into full-blown poverty.

A study by an economist at the University of California, Davis tracked transitions in and out of poverty, linked to factors that help explain them. The Urban Institute cites many other studies that have parsed the in-and-out (and back in) dynamics.

But we don’t, to my knowledge, have anything as expansive for material hardship. Some other countries are far ahead of us, as a complex study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) indicates.

The authors say what seems a suitable conclusion here. “Poverty is a complex issue, and a variety of approaches are required for its measurement and analysis.”

* The survey asks separate questions about health problems. These are certainly a disadvantage — the overall scope of the project. But analyses thus far have not linked them to material hardships, though one did look at the correlation to poverty.

 

 

 


TANF Turns 20, Still Failing Poor Families

August 18, 2016

Next Monday is the 20th anniversary of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The celebration, if we should call it that, has already featured more than the customary annual bashing. And I plan more than that too.

But I do think it’s worth a fresh look at how poorly poor families with children have fared since TANF replaced welfare as we knew it — and why it’s done so little to help enrolled parents move on to steady, decent-paying work.

These two are closely related, of course. And the evidence for both dates back to some time around TANF’s fifth anniversary, when parents with minimal marketable skills and little or no work experience could no longer get jobs because the very tight labor market loosened up.

Yet some leading Republican policymakers seem invincibly ignorant, as Catholic theology terms it, or willfully so, since they’re still proposing safety net program overhauls based on the TANF model.

A summary then of where things stand now — not for them, but for you who might advocate for a better TANF program, both nationwide and in your state (or would-be state if you live in the District of Columbia).

Fewer Poor Families Aided

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — my main source here, as often for TANF data — shows what’s happened to poor families and their children in several different ways.

We see, for example, that TANF served only a third as many families in 2014 as the program it replaced did in its last year.

We’re reminded that TANF enrollment barely grew during the Great Recession, while SNAP (the food stamp program) responded well to the large increase in households without the income jobs had provided.

Families With Benefits Still in Deep Poverty

CBPP also updates figures on cash assistance — basically, still shrinking as a percent of the federal poverty line, though some states and the District have increased benefits.

The maximum for a three-person family leaves it in deep poverty, i.e., below half the FPL, no matter where it lives.

Adjusting for inflation — and thus purchasing power — benefits have shrunk in all but three states. They’ve lost more than 30% of their value in nearly half.

These figures, recall, are based on the maximum a three-person family can receive. Very poor families may receive less because the parents — and necessarily their children — have been punished with benefits cuts.

The District has made three across-the-board cuts for families that have participated in TANF for 60 months or more. A three-person family up against the rigid time limit now receives $154 a month — 9% of the FPL.

Little Spent to Move Families From Welfare to Work

The assumption behind CBPP’s analyses (and others) is that TANF is supposed to reduce poverty among families with children. That’s not among the purposes the law specifies, however much it should.

But it does name reducing dependency. This means, among other things, enabling parents to get jobs that pay at least enough to push their families over the income eligibility threshold for their state’s TANF program.

The law requires states to have a set percent of parents engaged in “countable” work-related activities for a set number of hours each month. But states can spend whatever they choose on programs and services to prepare parents for work and help them find it.

They, by and large, choose to spend very little — on average, 6.5% of their block grant share, plus the funds they must spend to get it. This is even less than what they spent the year before.

They spent, on average, an additional 16.9% on subsidized child care — obviously a necessity for most parents who must participate in programs to ready them for gainful work.

But those childcare funds may not have benefited only TANF families, current or former. States may transfer up to 30% of their TANF funds to the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

They may use that block grant’s funds, plus (again) what they must spend to get them to subsidize child care for families with incomes up to 85% of the median for all families of the same size.

Needless to say (I trust), that’s a whole lot more income than any TANF family can have. Probably more than most who’ve moved into the workforce too.

A Lot Spent to Shore Up Other Programs

Child care is only one — and not the best — example of how states have used the flexibility TANF law gives them to fund programs and services that don’t help only poor families.

In 2015, states, on average, spent more than half their block grant, plus their own required share on things other than cash benefits, work activities and child care.

An average of 8.1% went for refunds from states’ own Earned Income Tax Credits — arguably a legitimate anti-poverty expenditure. But about a third shored up programs that have nothing to do with work or help for parents who don’t have it.

In some cases, CBPP says, they’ve used their TANF funds to replace what they’d previously spent — or would have had to spend — for programs that may benefit poor families, but not them exclusively, e.g., child welfare services, pre-K.

Much More to This Story

This post, simple as it seems, was hard for me to write because the simple kept getting swamped in exceptions, explanations, etc.

On the one hand, the summary figures obscure wide variations among states. You can see some of them in the CBPP analyses I’ve linked to and in this core-purpose spending map from HHS.

On the other hand — and what you can’t see — is that the federal law gives states more perverse incentives to cut their caseloads than the flexibility to use TANF as a slush fund, e.g., a way to avoid penalties for not meeting their work activity targets.

At the same time, it effectively deters them from letting parents pursue a work activity that would lift a goodly number of families out of poverty — participation in a postsecondary education program for long enough to get a degree or specialized certificate.

And, as I’ve written, who knows how often, Congress has put the squeeze on all states by funding the block grant at the same dollar level for what’s now 20 years. It’s now lost a third of its real-dollar value.

In short, it’s well past time to reform welfare reform. Perhaps we’ll have something real to celebrate next year.

 


Social Security Administration Backs Off Text Messaging Mandate

August 16, 2016

Turns out I was far from the only one upset by the Social Security Administration’s decision to block access to online accounts for people without text-enabled cell phones. The Tennessean reports that the agency faced such a backlash that it’s made the extra protection optional.

“The policy impacted not only those who don’t text message, but also people who live in rural areas with limited cell phone service,” says a Congress member who represents one of those areas.

Two other Tennessee Congress members weigh in too. We can, I think, assume that SSA heard from a broader swath of members, responding to constituents’ concerns — and from other quarters too.

The agency hasn’t yet told us online account users that we don’t have to have text messaging. Presumably it will. And we’ll reportedly have another way to ensure that we’re the people accessing our accounts within six months.

So all’s well that ends well, assuming that the new option doesn’t impose other burdens. We’ll nevertheless endure long wait times when we need services only staff can provide. Nothing SSA can do about that.

 


No Text Messaging Service, More and Longer Waits for Help From Social Security

August 15, 2016

I used to say that I was the only person in the developed world over the age of three who didn’t have a cell phone. Then my brother Tom told me he didn’t have one either. Now it seems that having not only a cell phone, but one that’s text-enabled isn’t just a handy alternative to email.

The Social Security Administration has just informed me that I can’t use my online account unless it can send me a text message whenever I try–and I text back. So I’m doomed again to hours on hold — and probably hours sitting in the local SSA office, as I had to do when some glitch in the system blocked my online account.

I could, of course, join the 21st century. But not all elderly and younger people with disabilities can afford a cell phone and the related fees, let alone the surcharges for texting.

The federal government offers low-income residents free cell phones and some variable number of free minutes. All but eight states restrict eligibility for this so-called Lifeline to people whose incomes don’t exceed $15,890 — this for people who live alone, as I do.

The cut-off is barely more than the average Social Security retirement benefit before the deduction for Medicare Part B, which most prudent retirees choose. And it’s less than 150% of the federal poverty line for a single person — a measure some analysts use to define low income.

Even income-eligible people may not have cell phones. One reason, I think, is that they have to choose between a cell phone and a landline. Some feel they can’t do without the latter — easier for people with poor vision to punch buttons for outgoing calls and see who’s calling them, for example.

Others might willingly forgo the landline, but live with someone who depends on it. The Lifeline choice isn’t personal, but for everyone in the household.

Texting poses other challenges. I think of my mother-in-law, who’s about to turn ninety-seven. Her right hand, never fully functional since a stroke some years ago, couldn’t readily peck out a message on a little keyboard.

SSA says it’s imposing the text messaging requirement as part of a government-wide effort to tighten up cybersecurity. I can see how a hacker could do mischief by accessing my account.

But the agency delivered the text messaging requirement as an edict, giving no one a chance to raise concerns or suggest alternatives. The executive order it refers to seems open to the latter.

Congress may make matters worse — not only for text-less seniors, but their younger counterparts who’ve either become too disabled to continue working or never could.

The House Appropriations Committee has reportedly decided to cut SSA’s budget by $250 million, though the agency has already lost roughly 10% in real dollars since the across-the-board spending cuts and caps required by the Budget Control Act.

A cut over on the Senate side too, the Washington Post reports in a column focusing on what unnamed agency officials say the House cut will mean for people applying for benefits, waiting for decisions and simply needing some personal help from a staff member.

Now there will surely be more of the last, thanks to the texting screen. Waiting for hours in an office isn’t nearly as bad as waiting for months to receive the benefits you need when your spouse dies — or for nearly a year and a half, on average, when you’ve appealed the agency’s rejection of your initial disability claim.

But my ample opportunities to observe others sitting in the office I go to suggest those long waits may do more than provoke acute impatience — something I’m more prone to than I should be.

I saw, for example, people with disabilities who had to have relatives with them to help with the applications process — or the interactions needed to resolve problems.

Not only they, but some other former workers, including seniors had somebody there to take them home — presumably the same person who brought them there. So they might have had to do without the benefits they needed for weeks (or months) longer because no one could immediately take enough time off from work.

Fulminating over SSA services last year, I cited a Los Angeles Times columnist who suggested that Republicans want to get us so riled up that we’ll accept some private-sector alternative. The head of the union that represents many agency employees says that’s why House Republicans voted for the latest budget cut.

I’m pretty riled up, as you can see, though not nearly that riled up. I do, however, feel that SSA has further disadvantaged people who’ve already got disadvantages not freely chosen, unlike my stubborn resistance to a smartphone.

UPDATE I: Minutes before I published this, I got a message from my bank, saying that it had instituted a multi-factor authentication process¬† — the technical term for what SSA has adopted. It does not require use of text messaging.

UPDATE II: My gripe abut text messaging is moot, as my next post reports. My concerns about long waits aren’t.


Testing Backlash Will Harm Disadvantaged Kids

August 11, 2016

Diane Ravitch explains (again) why she no longer supports the Common Core standards. She gets as column in The New York Times for this because she’s not just any old disaffected wordsmith.

She gained a following when she publicly renounced No Child Left Behind after having served as an Assistant Secretary for Education when the first Bush administration proposed it. And she later argued for national standards and assessments.

The Common Core and related tests aren’t national. But they would be if all states adopted them, as I think the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association hoped when they initiated the lengthy standards development process back in 2009.

I’m not by any means prepared to assess the standards. Nor the curricula that translated them into classroom lessons. Nor the tests developed to measure how well students have learned what they were supposed to.

But I don’t need that sort of expertise to recognize problems in the Ravitch piece. (Those interested can find a point-by-point rebuttal by Blair Mann at the Collaborative for Student Success.)

What concerns me most is the hostility to standardized tests — now directed at the Common Core, but older and fostered by major teachers unions.

They’ve licensed — and in some cases, encouraged — what are essentially parental strikes, i.e., refusals to let their kids take the tests. That, of course, skews results. And it’s justifiably alarmed major civil rights organizations.

Now, teachers do have griefs — among them, the way some school districts use standardized test scores to evaluate their performance, without factoring in the unique challenges of educating poor children and others disadvantaged in the classroom, e.g., because they’re still learning English.

Parents too have legitimate objections — mostly the barrage of tests administered in part to prep students for the relatively few tests No Child mandated and in part to collect more scores for the teacher evaluations.

But neither the Common Core itself nor the related tests have anything to do with how schools use scores, for good or ill, or how much testing they do in hopes of getting kids to score high.

Both, as I (and many others) have written before, have their roots in the just-superseded No Child. Now we have a new version of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — the also ambitiously named Every Student Succeeds Act.

States get more flexibility, of course. The U.S. Department of Education is expressly prohibited from using its clout to promote or deter their choices, as it did with the Common Core.

States still have to test students at certain points in their education, however. And the Department of Education must still issue rules to spell out everything the law requires them to do.

The test issue, therefore, takes on a special timeliness. So, therefore, does one of Ravitch’s beefs with the Common Core. The tests, she rightly says, are tougher than those that some states used before they switched.

She faults them because failure rates are “staggeringly high” for blacks and Hispanics, students with disabilities and those for whom English is a second language.

This, she says, creates “a sense of failure and hopelessness among them.” We should instead insist that all children have equal opportunities to learn, back that with sufficient funding and let teachers teach and test however they choose.

But we’d then have no reliable basis for determining whether the equal educational opportunity mandate in the Civil Rights Act has any practical effect at the school, district or state level. Likewise the more equal academic achievement that Title I has always aimed to promote.

Nor would teachers, administrators or policymakers. The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which Ravitch says suffice, yield only state-level comparisons, though states may get breakouts for some large urban districts.

The tests don’t reflect what every child has learned (or not), let alone learned what any current curriculum calls for. And the criterion they’ve used for low-income students is less reliable now than it used to be because many schools can now serve free meals to all their students, not only those qualified by their family’s income.

The real value of the NAEP is that the tests remain relatively consistent over a long period of time and provide a useful perspective on states’ own assessment scores. We need that, since some states shrewdly kept their tests easy — or made passing easier.

We shouldn’t, of course, dismiss the “hopelessness” low scores may foster in students already struggling because they don’t have the advantages their better-off peers enjoy. And we surely shouldn’t dismiss the need to make equal educational opportunity a reality everywhere.

But the ignorance Ravitch seems to advocate isn’t bliss for low-scoring students. They already know they can’t read the textbooks, do the math problems, understand the science behind the experiments, etc.

And it’s not bliss for their parents, who surely want to know whether their kids are learning what they’ll need to be “college and career ready,” as the Common Core intends.

We don’t need only standardized tests that reflect school-by-school learning. We need breakouts that tell us whether children with long-known disadvantages have mastered critical knowledge and skills.

ESSA requires the breakouts, plus some we haven’t had before. And the draft rules reportedly track the law (paywall precludes link).

States can still develop their own tests — or use those already developed to reflect the Common Core. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia chose the latter. But more than half have since decided to design their own.

They’ve defected mainly for political reasons. In some cases, state lawmakers perhaps responded to parents’ outcries when their kids scored lower because the tests were harder.

But more, it seems, want to push back against the Common Core itself, viewing it as one of the Obama administration’s intrusions into their affairs.

Now Ravitch has lent her authority to rejecting the Common Core — and the standardized tests that yield reliable cross-state comparisons. Worse, she’s lent her authority to opting out of any standardized tests in our public school systems.

A classic case of killing the messenger, I think.

 

 

 

 

 


Congress Does Yet Another Pretty Good Thing … Unanimously

August 8, 2016

Just before Senators left the capital for a long summer break, they passed by unanimous consent a bill that’s had strong support from leading advocates for policies that make housing affordable for low-income people.

The House had earlier passed it. No dissents there either. Nor objections from the White House. So we’ll soon have a law in effect that does various things styled as “housing opportunity through modernization.”

It’s a complex piece of work — administrative streamlining here and there, some new data collection and disclosure requirements, further support for ending veterans’ homelessness and more.

The most significant changes, it seems, will make more public housing units available for low-income individuals and families and perhaps subsidize more units in another type of housing.

Public Housing for Low-Income Only

The law tightens up income eligibility standards for public housing tenants. The standards for renting to them initially remain the same — generally no more than 80% of the median income for the area.

The law instead addresses a problem that sometimes surfaces later — income increases that put households substantially over the maximum. Yet they still occupy fully-subsidized units that could house some of the many people on waiting lists.

Public housing authorities will no longer be able to cover all but 30% of these households’ incomes year after year. They’ll have to either charge higher rents or evict the tenants when their incomes exceed 120% of the area median for two years in a row.

This accommodates relatively short-term income increases — a spate of paid overtime, for example. And it surely addresses Republicans’ oft-made claim that safety net programs discourage gainful work.

But it reserves ongoing subsidies for people who’d have a hard time finding an apartment they can afford on their own. So it’s likely to free up some units for more, though not many nationwide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ summary of the bill.

Public Housing Rehabs

A separate provision might make more public housing units available in a different way — or at least, make occupied units safe and otherwise livable.

Housing authorities can henceforth supplement their share of the capital fund, which is supposed to cover major repair and renovation costs, with up to 20% of the funds they get for operations.

Congress has shortchanged the capital fund for years. We seem not to have comprehensive figures on the number of units empty or scheduled for demolition because the costs of renovating them would break the budget.

We do, however, know that large-scale repairs would have cost well over $25 billion in 2010 — and an additional $3.4 billion each year thereafter. The country as losing “thousands for units” a year then, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said.

Whether the new law will make much difference is an open question. Many PHAs haven’t had enough for operations either, CBPP reports. But some may have funds they could shift, especially because of the various administrative streamlining provisions.

More Affordable Units in Better Neighborhoods

The law will allow PHAs to use a higher percent of the funds they receive for housing vouchers to subsidize units in privately-operated projects — or so it seems. The law changes the way the percent is calculated — from their share of the funds appropriated for vouchers to their voucher allotment itself.

The project-based vouchers require that specific units remain affordable for at least 15 years. The new law lets PHAs increase that to 20 years, thus doing more to preserve such affordable housing as we still have.

But it makes more significant changes. One will allow PHAs to use an additional 10% of their funded vouchers for the project-based sort so as to provide stable, affordable housing in neighborhoods where it’s hard to use the tenant-based, i.e., portable, kind.

These are the so-called high-opportunity neighborhoods that the voucher program — and two HUD pilots — have sought to move more families into.

Trouble is that rents in those neighborhoods are generally quite high — many higher than the maximum vouchers can now subsidize. And owners of lower-cost units have proved reluctant to rent to voucher-holders.

So the project-based option may move more families to opportunity — to to work, as the newer version of HUD’s pilot is called.

No evidence that moving to a low-poverty neighborhood gets more low-income adults into the workforce. But it does, as you’d expect, improve their mental health. And it benefits children in ways that later translate into higher earnings — provided they’re moved when quite young.

Vouchers for Targeted Populations

PHAs don’t have to use their additional project-based allotment for housing in higher-cost neighborhoods. They may instead use some or all to create housing elsewhere, but only for certain populations —¬† homeless people, veterans, seniors and people with disabilities.

They have some further flexibility to use these vouchers for housing with supportive services — the preferred solution for chronically homeless people, as you probably know.

Another piece of this very complex law expands a program to prevent children from being placed or kept in foster care because their parents can’t afford “adequate” housing. The expansion, however, addresses cases where “family unification” failed.

It makes former foster care youth eligible for vouchers until they’re 24 years old, rather than 21. They can have these vouchers for three years — twice as long as before. And youth who are about to leave foster care can get them if they’re likely to become homeless then — a high risk for many, the research shows.

More Flexibility, But No More Funds

The downside of these and other reforms is that the law gives PHAs no more money. So, for example, the additional project-based vouchers they create will mean fewer of the tenant-based kind. And those do have virtues — housing choice, among them.

If PHAs respond to the big push on veterans’ homelessness, they can’t move as many families with children to neighborhoods where they’ll fare better. And so forth.

The new law may save federal funds, however — $311 billion over the next five years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, assuming Congress follows through with the needed appropriations.

It could, of course, use the project savings for anything — or nothing, which would make a nick in the deficit. But it could plow them back into affordable housing programs, as CBPP hopefully notes.


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