Much Progress Toward Reducing Poverty, But Much More to Do

March 23, 2017

So many news reports, analyses, blog posts, etc. on how the House Republicans’ repeal-replace bill and/or Trump’s budget would harm poor people. I thought I should clear my mind and purge anger, however briefly.

So I reread a fleshed-out speech that Jason Furman, Obama’s Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors—gave a few days before Trump’s inauguration.

It seems even more timely now, as we learn more about what the new administration and Republican House leaders have in mind. But it’s relevant also to what state — and in some cases, local — policymakers have done and can do.

So a brief summary of the hefty, research-based framework and then the agenda Furman lays out.

What Accounts for Poverty

“Poverty is shaped by market forces and government policies and programs,” Furman says. Market forces are basically those that determine what people earn by working, investments and profits from sales. Furman focuses solely on the first.

Government policies and programs include other pre-tax income, e.g., Social Security benefits, post-tax cash transfers like refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit and cash-equivalent transfers like SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Significant Progress Toward Reducing Poverty

Forget all that rhetoric about throwing trillions at the problem with no impact on poverty rates. The poverty rate, as measured by a back-looking version of the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure was 41% lower in 2015 than in 1967, as the War on Poverty was setting in.

But the news here is that government anti-poverty programs account for the drop. Market-income poverty has remained essentially flat — and its deep poverty rate risen by nearly 3%.

Why No Progress From Market-Income Poverty

Furman identifies three market-income factors that could lift poor workers and their families over the poverty line — productivity growth, i.e., output per worker per hour, where the income generated flows and labor force participation, i.e., the percent of the population over 16 years old that’s working or actively looking for work.

Productivity growth slowed about 20 years ago, though it recently ticked up. The big difference from the prime period the CEA identified is that most of the income flows to the top — very large salaries for top management, corporate decisions to boost stock prices by buying back shares and maximizing dividends.

So productivity growth and average worker pay, plus benefits no longer closely track. The gap has, in fact, steadily widened, as the Economic Policy Institute’s graphs show.

Meanwhile, the labor force participation rate has trended down, recently reaching a 38-year low. Many reasons for this—retirement of baby boomers, for example, more young people going to college, more people (mainly women deciding to stay home with the kids because child care costs more than they’d earn.

But that still leaves a contingent of discouraged workers — those who looked, but gave up, those who decided it was futile to try — in many cases because they’ve found or have reasons to believe that they don’t have the knowledge and/or skills employers demand.

What the participation rate means, of course, is less household income — and less pressure on employers to offer higher wages.

Where to Go From Here

Furman’s agenda for further progress follows logically from his analysis. It has four major items.

Do no harm. Evidence shows that the safety net works — not only in the short term during recessions, but in the long term because the benefits it delivers have lasting effects on children’s prospects for moving up the income scale. So we should avoid policies that make it less effective, including block grants. (Told you this was timely.)

Focus on raising market incomes. This will involve policies to boost economic growth, but also changes to shift more of the gains to lower-income workers. Measures would raising minimum wages, as 22 states, the District of Columbia and more than 60 local communities have.

Furman also names expanded unions — presumably mostly in the private sector. This would also require repealing laws in half the states that allow workers to benefit from union bargaining without joining — and laws in three that have weakened public-sector union bargaining.

For individual workers and prospective workers, we need better programs to connect workers to jobs. Also more and better formal education.

On the more side, Furman cites research showing that low-income children fared better as adults when they participated in early childhood education programs. On the better, everything from that to college and beyond.

Rounding out this part, Furman looks to unspecified steps to reduce monopsony, i.e., cases where only one employer or a few control the labor market, thus enabling them to keep wages low..

Take further steps to improve the safety net. We need, for example, to increase funding for programs that egregiously fail to serve people who are or ought to eligible, e.g., for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing assistance.

We need to expand the EITC so that it’s a work incentive for childless adults, whom we still tax into poverty or deeper poverty.

And we should redesign the unemployment insurance program so that recessions automatically trigger more weeks of benefits or bigger benefits, rather than depending on what Congress decides at any given moment to do..

Think harder about people who fall through the cracks. Furman has no specific suggestions here, just notes the Edin-Shaefer findings on families living on $2 or less per day.

Worth noting, however, that the team attributes the sharp rise in such extreme poverty to the virtual end of cash assistance for non-working families when TANF replaced welfare as we knew it. Furman too zeroes in on TANF in a lengthy boxed insert.

So as we martial our defenses of safety net programs and protections for under-paid (and unpaid) workers, it’s still worth holding onto a vision and speaking out for a better day and better ways. And worth not losing sight of the policy-driven progress we’ve already made.


DC Coalition Urges Major Investments in Affordable Housing

March 20, 2017

While I’m on an affordable housing tangent, I’ll turn to what’s going on in my own community, the District of Columbia.

We’re in the fairly early stages of the annual budget season. And advocates have already begun pressing their cases — for more affordable housing funds, among others.

The Fair Budget Coalition has released its annual recommendations — a far-reaching set, both in scope and total cost. Not a mere wish list, however, since we’ve reasons to expect funding increases for some of the priorities, even if not as hefty as FBC calls for.

Nine of the recommendations address what the report terms “housing security,” i.e., safe, affordable housing for both families with children and people without. These recommendations represent at least 53% of the total new spending FBC advocates.*

Surely everyone who lives in the District or attends to what goes on here outside the White House and the Capitol buildings knows that the shortage of housing the lowest-income residents can afford is a huge problem — hence also the homeless problem.

The recommendations go at the linked problems in several different, though in some cases related ways.

Housing Security in the FBC Report

Housing Production Trust Fund. This is the District’s single largest source of financial support for projects to develop and preserve affordable housing. Funds available for the upcoming fiscal year will be half again as high — $150 million — as what the Mayor has consistently committed to and the Council approved, if FBC and allies prevail.

The new figure reflects the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s 10-year estimate of the cost of meeting the District’s affordable housing needs and what seems realistic for the administering agency to actually commit within the upcoming year.

The recommendation wouldn’t necessarily mean $50 million more in the budget itself because the Trust Fund, by law receives a small fraction of taxes the District collects when it records deeds to real property and transfers to new owners.

The larger policy issue here is that the Trust Fund hasn’t done what it’s supposed to for the lowest-income households, i.e., those with incomes below 30% of the median for the area. The law requires that it commit 40% of its resources to housing for them.

Last year, only 15% of funds awarded helped finance new rental housing affordable for this officially lowest-income group, DCFPI’s housing policy expert recently testified. FBC wants the required percent raised by 10% and a mandated plan for meeting the full need.

Permanent Supportive Housing. FBC recommends $18 million for permanent supportive housing, That, it says, would provide 535 units for single individuals and 317 families.

The former, by definition, have been homeless for a long time or recurrently and have at least one disability. The latter have at least one member who meets this definition. The “supportive” part of the term refers to individualized services residents are offered, but not required to accept.

So the budget would have to include additional funding for these services. Don’t suppose I need to say why the District can’t expect the federal government to provide more.

Housing Vouchers. These now come in two different flavors — those funded by the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., indefinite-term vouchers like the federal Housing Choice vouchers, and the almost-new Targeted Affordable Housing vouchers, first proposed in the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The TAH vouchers subsidize rents for individuals and families that no longer need the ongoing, intensive services they’ve received while in PSH, but will probably become homeless again if they have to rent at market rates.

They’re also designed for individuals and families who’ve reached the end of their short-term rapid re-housing subsidies and like the prospective PSH graduates will probably return to shelters — or the streets — if left to fend for themselves.

FBC recommends 425 subsidized TAH units for singles and 513 for families. It also calls for enough LRSP funding to house an estimated 466 families on the DC Housing Authority’s enormously long — and still closed — waiting list.

These vouchers will all be the tenant-based kind, i.e., those the fortunate families could use to rent on the open market from any landlord that would accept them.

We’ve reasons to expect that the voucher increases, whatever the kind will be more than offset by losses due to insufficient Housing Choice funding — about 1,300, if Congress passes the nick Trump’s budget takes.

Rapid Re-housing. Rounding out subsidies of the voucher sort, FBC recommends enough funding to accommodate 343 single individuals in the rapid re-housing program.

No more for families, which may tell us something — at the very least, doubts about how successful the vouchers are at truly ending homelessness for all but those temporarily down on their luck.

Public Housing. Funding to repair public housing units is the single biggest ticket item on the FBC housing security list — $25 million to eliminate such safety and health hazards as leaking indoor pipes, broken windows and doors, holes that rats and roaches crawl through.

This wouldn’t make all public housing units fully habitable. DCHA estimated its capital needs at $1.3 billion last year, noting ongoing shortfalls in federal funding for them. Yet another prospective cut that the District may have to deal with at best it can.

Bottom Line

FBC’s housing security recommendations total $118.9 million — not counting, as we probably should some portion of the Trust Fund investment.

In one respect, this is what we’re told good bargainers do — put on the table more than you think the folks on the other side will agree to.

But more importantly, it’s yet another sign that the Mayor and DC Council should revise policies that unduly limit what the District can spend.

The Chief Financial Officer’s latest revenue forecast estimates about $221 million more than the the current budget requires — and further increases over the next four years.

Under current policy, the forecast will automatically trigger all the tax cuts that haven’t already reduced what the District can spend.

Next year’s budget would then have only 57% of what it could without the cuts — $103 million less for a host of critical needs. Even less in future years, as DCFPI’s analysis shows.

At the same time, the District continues to sweep all budgeted funds unspent at the end of each fiscal year into what are essentially savings accounts. It’s now got about $2.4 billion parked, probably earning at a miniscule interest rate.

It could well end the fiscal year with more unspent funds again. We’ve had surpluses every year since 2010, when the Council decided to save every penny of them.

They can’t be used for budget items that require ongoing funding commitments, but any one-time expense is okay. A transfer to the Trust Fund would qualify.

So, as the current campaign slogan says, the Mayor and Council should untie DC’s hands — or more precisely, their own. At the same time, with prospects of budgetary tornadoes, rather than rainy days, setting some money aside in a reserve they can readily tap would be prudent.

* In some cases other than housing, FBC recommends a range, rather than single dollar figure. And, as noted above, the Trust Fund recommendation would not involve total spending through the budget. The percent I’ve cited is the lowest.


Policy Changes Could Shrink the Affordable Housing Gap, But Trump Budget Likely to Worsen It

March 15, 2017

Picking up where I left off on the acute shortage of housing for the lowest-income renters. As I said, we’ve got policy remedies, but also threats. Those seem more imminent since the Washington Post reported a leaked preview of Trump’s proposed budget.

A Range of Policy Remedies

More Financing for Affordable Housing. The National Low Income Housing, as you might expect, focuses on the housing, rather than the income side of the equation. Within this broad spectrum, it’s zeroed in, though not exclusively on building the National Housing Trust Fund.

First, it calls for legislative changes that would significantly increase revenues that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could transfer to the Fund, which at long last got some money last year — a down payment, of sorts, on its promise.

Second, NLICH would have the mortgage interest deduction cut in half, to $500,000 and the additional tax revenues shifted into the Fund.

These two measures — if swiftly enacted and gradually phased in — would generate an estimated $21.3 billion over the first 10 years, NLIHC says, using in part a study by the Tax Policy Center. Millions more then to states and the District of Columbia.

They can use their Trust Fund shares to help finance a range of activities that preserve, create, upgrade and otherwise make available more affordable housing.

All but 10% must go to rental housing and at least 75% of that for the benefit of extremely low income households, i.e., those with incomes no more than 30% of the median for the area they live in.

More Opportunity to Increase Housing Assistance. Even with a beefed-up Trust Fund, we’d still need more funding for Housing Choice vouchers — both project-based, i.e., those that subsidize rents for specific units, and tenant-based, i.e., those that enable recipients to rent at market-based rates, while still paying only 30% of their income.

Funding for these vouchers got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts. The annual caps on appropriations now leave a lot of discretion to the top-level decision-makers in Congress — and even to majorities in the subcommittees.

The caps have nevertheless surely played a role in severely limiting the reach of not only Housing Choice vouchers, but available public housing units and those funded by several programs that are smaller and more specifically targeted, e.g., for the elderly, for people with disabilities.

The Campaign for Housing and Community Development — a substantial, broad-based coalition — has just called on Congress to lift the originally-mandated caps, which will otherwise again become effective for the next fiscal year’s budget.

Very importantly, it calls for parity, unlike the lopsided defense increase/non-defense decrease we’re likely to see in Trump’s proposed budget, of which more below.

New Renters Credit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has floated a proposal that would get around the caps — a renters credit. Not, you note, technically federal spending, because spending through the tax code doesn’t count.

The credit would work somewhat like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in that states would get a certain number of the credits and then parcel them out to expand housing affordable for low-income people.

The new credit could go to both developers and owners and would subsidize rents like the Housing Choice vouchers, limiting what tenants pay to 30% of their income.

The difference here is that the developers and/or owners would get the difference as a tax reduction, rather than a direct payment from a public housing authority. And the big difference from the LIHT is that it would make units available for only the lowest-income households.

Like the NILHC mortgage tax interest reduction, the renters credit would shift the balance in current federal policies from housing assistance for high-income homeowners to the lowest-income renters and prospective renters.

The mortgage interest deduction, the related property tax deduction and some other tax preferences recently saved the highest-income households a total of more than $130 billion, according to the Center’s estimates.

All rental assistance was somewhere around $55 billion — less than the mortgage interest deduction alone.

Threats on the Horizon

We don’t know yet exactly what Trump will propose for next fiscal year’s budget, but he’s said it will increase defense spending by $54 billion. Not, however, so as to increase the deficit. He seems intent on doing that in other ways.

His forthcoming budget will offset the significant breach in the defense spending cap by reducing spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations. How he’ll apportion the cuts remains to be seen.

But the Washington Post reports that “preliminary budget documents,” probably the marks that the Office of Management of Budget passes down to federal agencies, call for more than $6 billion in cuts to Housing and Urban Development programs — roughly 14% of the insufficient amount they get now.

The work-in-progress budget would level-fund rental assistance programs, the Post says. This would not preserve the number of vouchers in current use because they cost more annually to plug gaps between what renters pay and landlords’ permissible rental charges, which HUD bases on the costs of  modest units on the open market.

Both the Center and NLIHC say that about 200,000 vouchers would effectively vanish, leaving more low-income renters with the huge cost burdens many already bear — or homeless.

Public housing would take big hits. The capital fund would lose about $1.3 billion or more than 31%* — this when public housing has major repair/rehabilitation needs that now total nearly $40 billion, NLIHC says.

The cut, on top of years of under-funding would mean the loss of even more public housing units — more than half of which provide affordable units, presumably with accommodations hard to find on the open market, for seniors and younger people with disabilities.

The budget document also cuts funding for operating public housing by $600 million. This funding stream subsidizes not only administrative activities like overseeing buildings and renting vacating units, but routine maintenance. Neglect that and you’ve got a capital need, as all of us housed people know

The prospective budget would also blow away a flexible block grant that densely-populated communities can use to provide affordable housing and cuts two others, including one helps fund improvements in rundown subsidized housing and surrounding neighborhoods.

A fourth — the Native American Housing Block Grant—would be cut by more than 20%, leaving housing on some reservations severely over-crowded and without such basics as hot and cold running water and/or toilets.

In not-so-short, billions more for defense, billions less for poor and near-poor people who urgently need affordable housing — like, for example, what the First Lady’s living in, rent-free.

* The Center, which links to the Post report, says the capital fund cut is about $2 billion.


House GOP Defunds Planned Parenthood, Endangers Low-Income Women

March 13, 2017

Nicholas Kristof wrote a presciently timely column for the next-to-the last Sunday New York Times. He recounts a visit to a women’s health clinic in small town in Maine, including what he observed during a consultation.

A teenager had come to the clinic because she felt itchy in her vaginal area. The nurse practitioner takes swab, diagnoses a yeast infection, but has also tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

She then talks to the teenager about birth control methods, including a long-acting reversible contraception. The young woman likes that, learns it’s fully covered by her insurance.

The nurse practitioner also gives her some condoms and tells her to always insist that her prospective sexual partner use one to protect her from STDs.

In short, as Kristof says, this is health care at its best, preventing both unwanted pregnancies and diseases.

Indirectly, poverty also, since the poverty rate for single-mother families is consistently the highest of any household type the Census Bureau reports — 36.5% last year and even higher for families with color, except Asian-Americans.

The Maine clinic apparently receives federal funds — either through the state’s Medicaid program, a Title X family planning grant or both. So it — —and the women who depend on it — are in big trouble because it provides abortions.

No federal funds used for these because laws already prohibit that. But the clinic probably can’t survive on donations and what it receives from health insurance companies for serving patients who’ve got the coverage the House Republicans’ Affordable Care Act repeal-replace bill would provide.

The bill won’t let people use the tax credits they’ll get to help pay their insurance premiums for a policy that covers abortions, except in the same limited cases the Medicaid prohibition carves out,

And, as you’ve probably read, it denies federal funding to Planned Parenthood, though initially for only one year. This perhaps to evade a stumbling block to swiftly passing the bill with only a simple majority in the Senate, rather than the usual 60 votes.

In the meantime, knowing the bill won’t pass swiftly anyway — if at all in its current form — the House passed and the Senate’s expected to pass a measure that overturns an Obama administration rule which effectively prohibits states from denying Title X funds to family planning projects because they provide abortions.

Well, none of this will make much difference to well-off women who live in cities or major suburban areas. They’ll have ob-gyns or other clinics they can go to. If they need an abortion, they can readily get one from their ob-gyn or another competent physician — and pay for it out of their own pockets.

But low-income women — and perhaps many not-so-low who live in small, rural towns — will no longer have a nearby clinic for tests that detect cancer as well as other diseases, counsel on how to prevent them and on safe, reliable birth control. Nor the procedure to insert a LARC — and replace it when necessary.

Planned Parenthood operates the largest network of women’s health clinics in the country — nearly 650, serving every state and the District of Columbia. They provide services to about 2.5 million women and men a year. Nearly 80% were poor or near-poor two years ago.

A tiny fraction of the funds it disburses go for abortions — 3%, as measured by services. Roughly a third help prevent untended pregnancies. Most of the remainder test, provide treatment and/or help prevent diseases.

Notwithstanding what some Republicans have said, other community clinics can’t readily meet these needs if the freed-up funds were available to them. Nor new clinics spring up all over the country.

Planned Parenthood is 100 years old now. You don’t get the resources to build or expand facilities, find and hire specialized health professionals to fully staff them, ensure stocks of testing equipment and supplies, etc. in a couple of years.

All these attacks on Planned Parenthood — and now apparently a broader attack on women’s health clinics — are a sop to the active pro-life movement.

What a cleverly chosen name, I’ve often thought, since it casts Americans who believe women should have the freedom to choose when and if to become mothers as against life.

Well, let’s consider the life of a low-income woman who can’t get regular Pap, other cervical cancer or breast cancer exams, plus instructions on how to monitor for breast lumps herself.

Or the life of a woman who doesn’t find out she has HIV/AIDS until she contracts some life-threatening infection — and perhaps by then has passed the disease on to a partner or a baby she’s borne.

How about a woman who’s decided that she’s unready — financially, emotionally or otherwise — to become a mother? She perhaps plans to enroll in a college-level program that will prepare her for a fulfilling, well-paying career — or is already in one.

She may, in fact, still be in high school and with no family member to care for a baby — or the money or the transportation to put him/her in an infant daycare program or even one nearby that’s not fully booked. She’s likely to drop out of high school, as 90% of pregnant teens do.

Her life may turn out okay, but the prospects are significantly dimmer. As I already said, she’s at high risk of poverty. What kind of life will that child have? Many studies tell us that children born and raised in poverty are at high risk for a host of problems and likely to remain poor long after.

None of this is to say that the self-labeled pro-lifers are wrong to publicly opposing abortions. If I believed that people were legally murdering others, I would speak out too, join with others to protest, call for an end to it.

But when human life begins, the value of preserving fetuses likely to die at birth or survive severely damaged, the countervailing weight of harms to the expectant mother and the like are matters of personal belief, often based on sectarian religious teachings.

The Supreme Court acknowledged women’s Constitutional Right to abortion more than 44 years ago. The federal government has nevertheless long curbed that right by prohibiting uses of federal funds for abortions.

Now, even if the House Republican leadership can’t push through its bill and the efforts to fashion a more acceptable substitute drag on, we can expect more proposals to defund Planned Parenthood — if not in Congress (though likely), then by states, 10 of which have already moved to do so.

And we can’t, I think, trust the new administration to intervene in defense of equitable funding for organizations that can provide the services Medicaid covers, given Trump’s bifurcated view on the Planned Parenthood issue.

A call to action then in defense of low-income women by the majority of voters who believe that abortion should remain legal in all or most cases. Because what’s a legal right if you’re too poor to exercise it?


Affordable Housing Crunch for Lowest-Income Renters

March 9, 2017

Another year, another report on how extraordinarily unaffordable housing is for low-income people nationwide and in every state, as well as the would-be state of the District of Columbia.

Affordability Basics

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s overview of the “housing gap” focuses on rental units that the lowest tier in the official housing policy lexicon could afford and actually move into.

These are extremely low-income households — those whose incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in. NLIHC includes a sub-tier it introduced several years ago — deeply low-income households, whose incomes are half that.

Housing affordability for both, as generally means costing no more than 30% of income. So, for example, a family with one full-time, year round worker paid the federal minimum wage would have a gross income of $15,080 and thus could afford, at most, $377 a month for rent.

Acute Affordable Rental Shortage

As of 2014, the survey year NLIHC has used, there were roughly 10.4 million ELI households in the country — 24% of all renters. They could hope to rent, at an affordable rate only 3.2 million units. Virtually no affordable units for the DLIs — just about 700,000.

The shortage is surely greater than what NLIHC could report because the Census Bureau survey it uses doesn’t reach homeless people. So what we have instead are households that did rent, but mainly way above what they could afford.

Nearly three-quarters of the ELIs were severely cost-burdened, i.e. spent more than half their income for rent, plus basic utilities. A mere 7% of the DLIs weren’t so cost-burdened — not to say they weren’t cost-burdened at all, however.

Far From Enough Money Left Over for Other Needs

We can readily fathom what the cost burdens mean. Our minimum wage worker family would have, after payroll taxes, no more than $590 a month and change for all other expenses.

Low-income households with, at most, 50% of their income left spent, on average, 38% less for food and 55% less for health care than comparable households without cost burdens, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports. Those most likely to face such trade-offs are households with children and seniors well past retirement age.

Not hard to see the long-term health consequences —  and others for those children, e.g., reluctance to form trusting relationships, lags in learning the basic skills schools measure.

These and others put them at higher risk for poverty as adults, perpetuating the cycle of severe cost burdens — or worse.

Many Shortage Drivers

Both NLIHC and the Joint Center cite diverse reasons for the affordable housing shortage, e.g., foreclosures during the recession, a broader preference for renting, developers’ understandable preference for units they can charge much more for.

At the same time, rental units subsidized by Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) project-based vouchers, i.e., those that cover all but 30% of rent, plus basic utilities for specific units, are disappearing far faster than they’re being replaced.

NLIHC cites a nationwide loss of 46,000 such units over the last decade — some demolished, others no longer affordable because the contracts that bound the owners to keep their rents within the limits HUD set expired.

Add to these roughly 150,000 public housing units lost — most, though not all for ELI households. The Joint Center estimates the loss at 10,000 every year.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed federal funding for major repairs and renovations. A study for HUD estimated the total funding need for such capital investments at more than $25.6 billion in 2010.

The total grows annually at roughly $3.4 billion, as costs rise, more units deteriorate and deteriorated units get worse, leading ultimately housing losses, but perhaps in the meantime units egregiously below any reasonable standard.

Since the 2013 across-the board budget cuts, funding for capital investments has remained virtually flat at about $1.9 billion. This isn’t the only reason so many units became so unlivable that public housing authorities closed them. NLIHC cites others, but the bottom line is lost units affordable for ELI and DLI households.

The supply-demand dynamic includes another factor. Higher-income households live in nearly half the units the ELIs could afford. If the ELIs could actually move into those units, the gap would shrink by about 2.6 million.

Now this is only one side of the story, of course. If you’ve got more income, you can afford more for housing. But incomes generally aren’t keeping pace with rent increases — quite the contrary. While rents rose, on average 7% between 2001 and 2014, incomes dropped 9%.

This average includes households that had plenty of money. Those in the bottom fifth, where we’d find the ELIs and DLIs had to cope with losses through at least 2015. Sparse federal housing assistance for them. Only about a quarter of low-income households get any at all.

This is perhaps especially notable because Congress has restored and supplemented the funding needed to offset the cut that caused public housing authorities to withhold or cancel nearly 60,000 unused tenant-based vouchers, i.e., the kind recipients can use to rent at market rates and still pay only 30% of their income.

We’ve got policy remedies, as well as reasons for the gap. But at this point, we can foresee threats to even sustaining current funding levels. More than I can do any justice to here.

But since this is supposed to be a policy-focused blog, I’ll return to them shortly.


What to Ask About New Safety Net Work Requirements

March 6, 2017

As I said last week, we’ve reasons to expect that more work requirements imposed on “work-able” adults who have — or need to have — safety net benefits. So it’s worth considering how we might assess what state governors and legislatures propose.

We have two major models for work requirements — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and SNAP (the food stamp program), as applicable to able-bodied adults without dependents.

Both permit not only work for pay, but participation in a program that prepares for such work. Participation counts only if for a minimum numbers of hours. generally averaged over some period of time.

Assuming, as I think one can, that proposed new work requirements will include a broader range of permissible activities than work for pay, we thus have some experience to assess them. Some questions then.

Will the state ensure that all unemployed or under-employed adults who are otherwise eligible for the safety net program can get a slot in a job training program for the requisite number of hours?

Very few states do for the ABAWDs, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. The federal government provides states with some funds expressly for SNAP-related employment and training. But most states use most of those funds to move adults with children into the workforce.

Experience with TANF also makes this a relevant question. I haven’t seen a comprehensive account of slot shortages. This much we know. States spend, on average, 7% of their federal funds, plus those they must spend to get them on work activities.

The District of Columbia’s TANF program reflected a similar priority in the not-too-distant past. In 2014, parents waited up to 11 months for access to a job training program. And the clock kept ticking, so to speak, toward the date when they and their children could never have TANF benefits again.

Will the state provide the other resources many of the adults will need to work or participate in a job training program for the required number of hours?

The adults, by definition, have little, if any income. And such as they have, must often pay for rent, food (even with SNAP benefits) and other basic needs, e.g., supplies and handfuls of coins for laundry, telecommunications of some sort.

Will the state provide transportation and/or a transportation subsidy, e.g., an auto fuel allowance for those with a car, a bus pass and/or subway fare card for those on a public transit route?

And what about the adults with children not old enough to be in school during all the hours they’re supposed to work or prepare for same? They’ll need free or nearly-free child care. And it’s unrealistic, as well as potentially unsafe for the kids to expect parents to count on friends or relatives.

The affordable childcare record generally indicates a gap to fill. Last year, for example, 20 states had waiting lists for childcare assistance or had closed them, the National Women’s Law Center reports.

Virtually all states require parents to chip in some money of their own, as a co-pay. It’s generally small as a percent of income for those below the poverty line.

But in at least four states, it’s at least 10% — $250 a month for a single parent with just one child. (Some exceptions here that wouldn’t apply to every parent subject to a new work requirement.)

How will state identify adults who aren’t work-able?

SNAP rules exclude from the ABAWD requirement adults who are medically certified as unemployable due to a mental or physical condition, pregnant or otherwise already exempt, presumably because they’ve qualified for SSDI (Social Security Disability Income) or SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

The bar here is very high. Someone, for example, may be employable, i.e., able to work and get a job, but not for an average of 20 hours a week or for months at a time. One or both are common enough for people with certain chronic conditions.

So what standard will the state set? Will it ensure that all adults potentially unable to work can have the requisite medical review — and, if necessary, the legal help to surmount to notorious barriers to gaining federal disability benefits?

Consider too that adults who’ve no disabilities may have compelling, related reasons not to work — a child with severe disabilities who needs constant care, for example, or a frail, aged parent.

Most states and the District exempt TANF parents with such responsibilities from work requirements. Will states do the same if they opt for new work requirements?

Will participating adults be able to find jobs — and keep them?

No job training program lasts indefinitely. And it’s very doubtful that a state would allow a work-able adult to move from one to the next and then the next until s/he could find a job.

Yet some safety net participants have what are commonly called barriers to work, e.g. mental or physical disabilities that don’t rise to the SSI/SSDI level, functional illiteracy. Just plain long-term unemployment is a barrier too, as are common consequences—credit checks, for example.

On the other hand, many adults who rely, at least for awhile on safety net benefits had jobs no longer available in the area they live in — or elsewhere.

The jobless former factory workers and coal miners that Trump appealed to would seem to need retraining tailored to employers’ needs in their area — and others projected nationally.

Will the state do the necessary market and personal assessments? How will it provide these and other services to poor people in small rural communities, if it has them?

Where will the money come from?

Well, the state shouldn’t look to the federal government for more funds — not at least for the foreseeable.

Recall that the flexibility states would gain to impose work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries would also shift costs to them, increasingly over time — currently estimated at $560 billion over the next 10 years.

Experience with not only TANF, but SNAP E&T offers further cautions. Congress, as you probably know, has never increased funding for the former. The latest Farm Bill restored the latter to the same maximum it had in 2004 — in real dollars, about 44% less.

And the budget Trump is trumpeting would reduce total federal spending for non-defense discretionary programs by $54 billion — not a happy prospect for the grants states receive for job training, placement help and the like.

These aren’t the only questions I’d want to ask. But they must suffice for now, lest this post swell entirely out of compass. Would any of you like to add others?


Those Who Do Not Work Will Not Eat… or Have Other Basic Needs Met

March 2, 2017

Conservatives have long liked the notion of conditioning safety net benefits on work or a near equivalent, e.g., participation in a job training or education program, unpaid community service.

Work requirements are in the forefront now, due mainly. not only to what Congressional Republicans are reportedly mulling over for their Medicaid “modernization.”

Work requirements aren’t new, of course. They’re a key feature of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

And the law that created it also denied ongoing SNAP (food stamp) benefits to able-bodied adults without dependents who don’t work or participate in a job training program at least half-time.

So we’ve some experience with work requirements. And, as the old saying goes, “What you see depends on where you stand.” But not altogether. That experience can give us filters to assess proposals to build work requirements into more federally-funded programs.

I’m going to confine this post to the political landscape and how influential conservatives justify work requirements. Will follow up with a post on those filters.

Republican Leanings Toward More Work Requirements

The House Republicans evolving Medicaid overhaul doesn’t impose work requirements. Instead, it grants states vastly greater latitude to set eligibility standards.

We can foresee some results, including work requirements because a handful of Republican governors have jumped ahead, asking the federal administrative agency for permission to impose them.

The Obama administration’s Medicaid administrators rejected most requests. But it’s a brand new day in the executive branch. And Trump’s lead decision-maker helped develop the Kentucky governor’s still-pending request.

In short, the waiver petitions show the way the wind is blowing in some Red States — and what more states may do when granted the flexibility the House bill drafters have in mind.

Many poor and near-poor people may have to meet work requirements in other programs intended to keep them healthy and safe — or suffer the consequences.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s blueprint for his party’s poverty agenda includes, as a principle, “Expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work in exchange for welfare benefits.” Those benefits serve a wide range of low-income people’s basic needs, e.g., health care, food, housing, help with home heating bills.

The Heritage Foundation, which now seems to have a virtual seat at the White House policymaking table, has called for an across-the-board work requirement for able-bodied SNAP recipients.

The new Secretary for Housing and Urban Development has hinted at potential work requirements for people who live in subsidized housing. For example, he told the Senate committee vetting him that he wanted HUD’s programs to “be a Band Aid and a springboard to a better life.”

The Chairman of the House committee that oversees HUD has been more forthcoming. “We will reform our housing programs for the poor to reflect the value of work,” he said at a forum on the issues.

How Supporters Justify Work Requirements … and Grains of Salt

We find several sorts of justifications for work requirements. Ryan and numerous other conservatives cite what happened in the first few years after parents (mostly single mothers) had to comply with work requirements to receive time-limited cash assistance for their families.

A large number did, in fact, move from welfare to work, though not only because of the new requirements. Most importantly perhaps, the labor market was very tight then. Employers sorely needed more low-skill workers.

Looking past those years, we see that single mothers have fared badly in the labor market, as have TANF families generally. But lead Republicans still cite TANF as the model safety net program.

We’re all familiar by now, I suppose, with allusions to safety net benefits as a hammock. Seems that poor people prefer lolling comfortably, at taxpayers expense, to even trying to get a job.

They must be dumped out of their hammocks, if not immediately than with imminent prospects that they will be — as indeed, TANF parents (and their children) generally are.

On a less pejorative note, we hear that work is the best way out of poverty. That’s true enough enough, if one can find a job paying more than a poverty-level wage. (The same folks who invoke this remedy generally don’t support minimum wage increases.)

“Work confers dignity …responsibility,” says Arkansas’ governor, who’d sought permission to impose a work requirement for Medicaid. One might wonder what the stay-at-home spouses of like-minded proponents think.

Snark aside, it defies common knowledge to argue that only people who work for pay feel as sense of personal responsibility.

Consider, for example, a poor mother with children, scrambling to put food on the table, find some place for the family to spend the night — even donating her plasma until she’s in danger of anemia in order to get some cash.

I’m not sure what dignity means in this context — perhaps the respect of others, though the link to responsibility suggests it’s supposed to mean respect for one’s self. Whether working bolsters self-respect would seem to depend on a number of factors, including how attuned one is to our society’s work ethic.

On the flip side, many of us know, I think, how demoralizing it is to look for a job and net nothing, month after month. Demoralizing also to settle for a job that calls for far less than what one’s qualified to do — and pays far less as well.

That’s a likely result for many work-able adults in safety net programs if they’re subject to work requirements that are either time-limited or conditioned on participating in programs geared to push them into (or back into) the workforce as quickly as possible, like the “work first” approach once common in TANF and still favored in some quarters. .

Top-flight progressive advocates adamantly oppose any further work requirements. They cite, for example, the percent of safety net beneficiaries who already work or live with some who does.–or on the other hand, the very high percent who can’t be expected to.

All this said, new work requirements seem a not unlikely result of the Republican majorities in Congress now having a like-minded executive branch — and the very high portion of states where Republicans set the agenda.

So, as promised, I’ll suggest some questions we might ask if — or should I say as — more work requirements surface.