Subsidized Housing Cuts Poverty Rate More Than Census Measure Shows

My post on the dismal status of the Housing Choice voucher program led off with a call for larger investments in anti-poverty measures that have proved effective. But I didn’t wrap back around to how the vouchers fit in. Just too much, I felt, to cram into a single post.

So here’s the missing piece.

The Coalition on Human Needs, the source of my jumping-off point, draws on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure for proofs of effectiveness. Many other progressive analysts and advocates do so as well.

As I’ve said before, the Bureau shows the impacts of major social insurance and safety net programs by recalculating poverty rates without their cash value.

The impacts of federally-funded housing subsidies — vouchers and public housing rolled together — seem relatively small, though not negligible when analyzed this way.

Without them, the SPM poverty rate would have been 0.9% higher in 2014. So it would seem they lifted roughly 2.8 million people over the poverty threshold — about 7 million fewer than the refundable tax credits, the top-ranked program one might classify as safety net.

The impact of the housing subsidy programs on the poverty rate has remained about the same ever since the Bureau began issuing its SPM reports in 2010. Small variations, but within the statistical margin of error.

The under-funding I’ve been going on about is one reason the impacts aren’t greater. But it’s not the only reason. Eligibility for housing assistance is another.

An individual or family doesn’t have to be hovering near the poverty threshold to qualify. The cut-off instead is 30% of the median income for the area they live in. That’s often, if not always considerably higher than the applicable poverty threshold.

In the District of Columbia, for example, the cut-off for a couple with with two children last year was about $9,000 higher than the maximum the family could have and still be counted as poor, if renters.

True, the DC Housing Authority exercises preferences when awarding new housing vouchers and public housing units, including one for homeless people, who are likely to be poor. But how many people in poverty actually benefited from such assistance last year is an open question.

More to the point, we can’t assume that what DCHA does reflects housing authority policies generally — except probably its current focus on veterans.

The impact figure is relatively small for a third, important reason. The dollar value of a housing subsidy doesn’t capture its full anti-poverty impact.

The value the SPM attributes to it is the different between the market-rate rent for an apartment, including basic utilities and what the household actually paid. But safe, stable housing is a platform of sorts for rising out of poverty. Or looked at another way, not having it makes rising more difficult.

Shifting around from place to place — or even worse, living in a shelter — makes finding and keeping a job unusually challenging. No permanent address. In some cases, no ready, regular access to a shower or a washing machine and dryer. Limited, if any access to a computer. Negative effects on both physical and mental health.

And if nothing else, time and energy that must be diverted to negotiating yet another temporary housing arrangement, packing and unpacking, figuring out new transit routes to work or training, other services, school and daycare for the kids, if any, etc.

For children, housing instability often has long-term consequences that make poverty in adulthood more likely — these better documented by research than consequences for adults.

Children whose families move around a lot, even if not in and out of a shelter, face higher risks of mental health problems — some manifesting themselves as what experts refer to as behavioral problems.

These help account for academic difficulties, as measured by standardized test scores and grades. So do frequent shifts from one school to another.

The end result is a relatively high dropout rate. And we know what employment and earnings prospects are for folks without at least a high school diploma.

Such effects are hard to convert to dollars that adults, both current and future, would have if stably housed, thanks to vouchers or apartments in public housing.

But I’m sure as can be that enabling low-income people to live in decent housing they can afford reduces poverty more than the SPM shows.

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