Recent Report Misreports Homelessness and Hunger in DC

January 14, 2016

Each year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports the results of a hunger and homelessness survey it takes of a subset of its member cities. Twenty-two responded last year, including the District of Columbia.

Past experience has made me wary of figures reported for the District. At least one key hunger figure got mangled several years ago, as I belatedly learned.

This time, I found key homelessness figures downright perplexing because they bore no resemblance to what the one-night count found — or for that matter, to anything else I’d read or heard about.

So I checked the figures with the Department of Human Services, which files the survey responses, based on what it receives from the Community Partnership to End Homelessness and the Capital Area Food Bank. Also checked directly with CAFB.

And sure ‘nough, something(s) got lost in translation, to put it kindly. Niggling about the figures may seem just a wonkish gotcha. But the USCM report does get cited by reporters, columnists and us social media types.

So I’m going to set the record straight, best as I can.

More Recorded As Served, Not Necessarily More Homeless

The USCM reports that the number of homeless families in the District increased by 60% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of homeless individuals by 11%.

Well, the increases actually reflect numbers served by programs funded at least partly by DHS — this courtesy of Dora Taylor, the agency’s public information officer, who herself seemed rather taken aback.

“Served” here means people generally got some form of assistance — not necessarily what they asked for or needed, but something that caused an intake worker to enter a record for them in the homeless information management system that the Community Partnership maintains to comply with federal requirements.

As Taylor suggested, the misreported homeless family increase may in part reflect the administration’s decision to open shelter doors to newly-homeless families year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days.

They didn’t all gain shelter, however. Services recorded include, for example, what’s referred to as “diversion” — usually an intake worker’s finding a friend or relative the family could stay with, however briefly.

Whatever the services, the reported increase seems far greater than what the welcome policy change can account for. Recall that it was intended partly to ease the annual crush at the intake center when winter set in.

I got nothing from DHS to help explain the reported uptick in homeless individuals. So I’ll just tee up two related hypotheses.

The HIMS probably had more records for singles because DHS and nonprofit partners had become convenient one-stop-shops of sorts — and still are. Caseworkers assess and then link singles to some form(s) of aid. All those assessed become part of the system, if they’re not in it already.

It’s also possible that more homeless singles chose to seek help because they’d heard that they had a better chance of getting affordable housing — time-limited for some and permanent, i.e., indefinite-term, with supportive services for those deemed chronically homeless.

More Requests for Help in Finding Free Food, Not Necessarily Increased Need

The USCM reports that requests for food assistance in the District increased, though not by how much. Still disturbing if requests reflect need.

They don’t. CAFB has no way to track the number of people who seek free groceries and/or meals. So it supplied a figure reflecting the increase in calls to its hotline, which makes referrals to nonprofits it helps supply.

As my CAFB contact remarks, the increase may reflect, at least in part the fact that more people in need know about the hotline. Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of residents who can’t afford to feed themselves and family members — only that we don’t know whether we’ve got more (or fewer).

Unmet Food Demand (If Any) Still a Mystery

The USCM reports that an estimated 24% of the demand for food assistance in the District went unmet in 2015. “Demand” here presumably refers to requests for groceries and/or meals provided by local nonprofits.

Not necessarily all, however, since CAFB would have no information from any nonprofit it didn’t help supply. It does, however, have data for the 444 nonprofits in its distribution network, thanks to a periodic survey Feeding American conducts.

But the latest survey results are for 2014. And the data CAFB can readily access are for all the Washington metro area programs in its network, not just those in the District. So we’ve got a flawed unmet demand estimate — and for the same reason as before.

Flawed Survey, But Not the Whole Story

What I’ve just said about the food assistance figures doesn’t reflect badly on CAFB. The USCM survey clearly asks questions that public agencies it contacts can’t answer, either from their own records or from what other sources can supply.

And respondents don’t get clear instructions on how to come up with such numbers as they can, my CAFB contact says.

There is, however, guidance for the homelessness questions. Cities are told that their best source will be their HIMS. This presumably opened the door to the misleading figures reported for the District. Door open doesn’t mean the Community Partnership — and ultimately DHS — had to walk through it, however.

We know we’ve got a serious homelessness problem in the District. We know that some residents at least sometimes don’t have enough to eat. But the figures should have raised red flags, I think.

Better to have gone back to the sources before responding. And better to have taken a pass on the survey — or at least some questions — than to have USCM report such faulty figures, however well-meaning its attempt to document urban needs.

 

 


TANF Work First Doesn’t Work, New Study Confirms

December 3, 2015

The House Subcommittee on Human Resources is still holding hearings to provide a basis for the overdue overhaul of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. No issue has proved as controversial as the work activity requirements.

Progressive experts want them modified so that parents can readily engage in activities that will improve their employment prospects, e.g., by allowing states to count toward their required participation rates longer-term job-related education, high school enrollment and GED prep for adults and services to reduce personal barriers to work.

Others the subcommittee has heard from object to any such expansion. Robert Doar and colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, say they fear it will “shift the focus of TANF away from a work-first model.” Clearly a bad thing, since TANF “has been a success,” Doar claims elsewhere.

His view — and not his only — is that the program should aim to get parents into the workforce swiftly. No matter that the jobs they can get often pay little. They’ll develop more skills, plus a work history and so move up to higher positions.

A recently reported study of parents who left Maryland’s TANF program casts grave doubts on this scenario. It does so by tracking a sample of nearly 4,770 leavers for five years — longer than most prior studies.

Even first-year outcomes strongly suggest that a majority weren’t work ready, though that’s the intent of the work activity requirements — or if ready, not able to find steady work.

Only slightly more than one in three worked all four quarters — whether part time or full time the report doesn’t say. It does, however, tell us that only 18.5% earned $20,000 or more — enough, in other words, to boost a family of three over the very low poverty line.

More than one in four didn’t work at all. And of those who did, the highest percent — roughly one in three — earned no more than $5,000.

Steady employment — even by the researchers’ liberal standard — was relatively rare. By the fifth year, only about one in five had consistently worked either three or four quarters.

The percent that never worked barely shrunk. And in the fifth year, it outstripped those who worked all four quarters, making it the most common outcome then.

A similarly dismal earnings picture. True, the number earning more than $20,000 was 7% higher by the fifth year. But nearly 48% earned $5,000 or less, not counting those who had no earnings whatever.

Over the whole five year period, more leavers than not “remained mired in jobs” in which they never earned more than the equivalent of a half-time job at the minimum wage. Far, far less than the self-sufficiency TANF programs aim for.

And indeed, 58% of the leavers returned to Maryland’s program — this presumably because they’d left before they’d participated for the 60-month lifetime limit, which Maryland, like a majority of states, imposes. (Most of the rest cut families off sooner.)

On a local note, the District of Columbia’s TANF program adhered to a work-first approach until late 2011 — and took some considerable time after that to fully convert to more individually-tailored activity plans.

The District hadn’t even used such opportunities as federal rules allowed to permit a year of “education directly related to employment” at a community college or voc-tech school. Nor had it used these opportunities to meet needs for basic literacy or English as a Second Language education.

What this means is that the first round of families who’ll lose what remains of their benefits spent years in a program that prepared few, if any of the parents for jobs that pay enough — and for long enough — to even lift them out of official poverty.

We didn’t need the Maryland study to tell us this. Earlier followups have indicated something similar for leavers after the first few years to TANF — those the program’s enthusiasts always cite.

A fairly recent audit of the District’s own 60-month-plus parents found, among other things, that only 38% who’d received employment services got jobs that could have provided steady, full-time work.

Of all those who’d gotten jobs of any sort since early 2012, fewer than half had jobs of any sort in October 2014. And as my review of the findings noted, the fall-off starts before the second month.

These results skew toward the positive because the auditors looked only at the 40% or so of at-risk parents whom the Department of Human Services had assessed as work-ready.

Ready perhaps, but apparently unlikely to work steadily for wages that are anything like what they’d need to support themselves and their children.

And unlike the Maryland leavers, they won’t have a chance to recover the protections against dire poverty that TANF provides — unless the District concludes that establishing a rigid time limit was a short-sighted mistake.

 


Hunger Costs America Well Over $160 Billion a Year

November 30, 2015

Hunger costs our country $160 billion a year, Bread for the World reports. That’s more than one and a half times what the federal government spent on all domestic food assistance programs last fiscal year.

And the estimate is very conservative because it reflects only what the analysts could glean from academic studies of the impacts of hunger and food insecurity on health and related costs.

These include health care, of course, but also lost work time due to personal illness or the need to care for a sick family member.

The report, though not the headline figure also includes other indirect costs, i.e., for special education in public schools and dropouts after students had to be absent too much and/or repeat a grade.

Folding these in increases the hunger cost to nearly $179 billion. And as the online intro to the report says, that’s still only partial because we don’t have the research to quantify all relevant costs.

It cites the costs of forgoing prescribed medications — or skipping doses — so as to have more money for food. Also missing from the estimates, it says, are various other health-related “byproducts” of hunger.

These include overweight and obesity, some forms of cancer, deficiencies in micronutrients like iron, calcium and the familiar vitamins, potentially preventable returns to hospitals and mental health problems, though some of these are factored in.

The new study borrows from and updates a similar study conducted in 2010. One would expect high hunger-related costs then, what with so many people out of work and perilously short on money — a problem even for those with temporarily-boosted SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

As you know, the official unemployment rate has dropped. So has the estimate of what it would be if all working-age jobless adults were counted.

But hunger-related health costs have continued to rise. This is especially notable because the prior “hunger bill” included the costs of charitable feeding programs, while the Bread for the World study didn’t.

I’m never comfortable with putting a price tag on the harms deprivation causes. But costs do make for good headlines and may grab the attention of policymakers, especially when they imply potential savings.

It’s still disturbing to see costs attributed to severe, possibly chronic health problems — and to suicide, the third largest item in the latest cost estimate.

How can we put a dollar figure on the suffering of people who did away with themselves or on the grief, guilt and other often devastating emotions of survivors? Or the pangs of accommodating holes in the fabric of their everyday lives?

The leaders of Bread for the World undoubtedly have similar reservations. The organization identifies itself as a “collective Christian voice,” advocating for a world without hunger.

Helping us recognize the shockingly high health costs of hunger and malnutrition may stir us to advocacy and give us ammunition. It may perhaps even change some of our policymakers’ perspectives.

But ensuring that everyone in this country has enough healthful food to eat every day is fundamentally a moral call. We all feel this, I think, whether we affiliate with a religious faith or not.

Yet we’ve got about 48 million people here who at the very least may go hungry — and roughly 17.2 million who at least sometimes do.

Apologies for climbing onto a soapbox. Thinking about hunger, especially when many of us are still recovering from the food excesses of Thanksgiving — and perhaps the shopping aftermath — gets me going.

So to end on a somewhat different note, this is also the time of year when we with the wherewithal often give to the charities of our choice. Our gifts can’t eliminate hunger. We need sufficiently funded government programs for that.

But organizations that feed poor and near-poor people and advocate on their behalf deserve our support. Off the soapbox and onto other issues.


Childcare Workers Underpaid, While Families Face High Care Costs

November 9, 2015

A recent blitz of social media communications about how little childcare workers get paid. The engine behind them is Fight for 15 —  a campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage, originally by and for fast food workers, backed by SEIU (the Service Employees International Union).

Childcare workers joined last March, but they’ve become more vocal — or more precisely, had their voices channeled — only in the last month or so, as a lead up to the Fight for 15 strike on Veterans Day.

The Economic Policy Institute, which has strong organized labor ties, published a report last week showing, from various perspectives, how relatively low childcare workers’ wages are — and predictable consequences.

The report raises larger issues. Some details on the wages first, then a segue into a couple of those.

The median wage for childcare workers is $10.31 an hour — 39.3% less than for all other workers. This, in fact, may understate the difference because the median doesn’t include childcare workers who have no official employer but themselves.

What’s more telling is the pay gap for workers who’ve got at least some college education, as nearly 61% of childcare workers do.

Those with less than a four-year degree get paid a median of $4.88 an hour less than their counterparts in other occupations. For those with a bachelors degree, the per-hour median is $10.78 (44.8%) less.

The pay gap doesn’t simply reflect other demographic differences commonly linked to wage rates, e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, age. The “child care penalty,” as EPI calls it, remains when they’re factored in.

Not surprisingly, childcare workers have a higher poverty rate than all other workers combined — 14.7%, as compared to 6.7%.

The “penalty” doubles for childcare workers with incomes at or below 200% of the official poverty line — a commonly used measure because the line reflects the Census Bureau’s unrealistically low poverty thresholds.

EPI turns to its family budget calculator. The maps its report includes show that the median childcare worker wage falls short of what a single person, living alone needs for basic living expenses in virtually every community in the country.

One of those basic living costs, though not for the single person, is child care, of course. Center-based care for either an infant or a four-year-old costs far more than what the typical childcare worker can afford.

Such care for an infant in the District of Columbia would eat up 89.7% of the childcare worker’s wage — and only 17% less for a four-year-old.

What this means, of course, is no center-based child care unless heavily subsidized — and not only in the District. It often isn’t, especially for parents whose incomes put them above the extremely low cut-offs for states’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs.

The end result for a childcare worker can be no earned income because she’s got to quit her job, as one featured in a ThinkProgress story did when her youngest was put on a subsidy waiting list.

The subsidy did come through. It’s a piece of one of those larger issues — the fact that we taxpayers subsidize employers that pay very low wages because workers perforce turn to public benefits.

A study put hard numbers on this cost-shift in the fast food sector several years ago. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, including several from the fast food team, have done the same for childcare workers.

Of those who worked, at least part-time and for at least somewhat over half the year, 46% received benefits from at least one of five “public support” programs — Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP (the food stamp program), TANF and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Costs of these supports totaled, on average, $2.4 billion a year — about 55% of it for Medicaid and CHIP, since healthcare costs are disproportionately high. But average yearly costs of the EITC (presumably the refundable part) and SNAP totaled more than $1 billion.

“Child care workers’ job quality does not seem to be highly valued in today’s economy,” EPI remarks. Somewhat of an understatement when we consider not only their typically low pay, but the notably few with employer-sponsored benefits, e.g., health insurance.

This too seems a piece of a larger issue. Anne Marie Slaughter argues that we don’t value caregiving. She’s referring to a “workplace culture” that discourages or denies time off for family responsibilities — and to public policies that have thus far done little about this.

But it also applies to wages for professionals in what Professor Cheryl Carleton refers to as “the caring industry,” e.g., teachers, nurses, home health aides.” The fact that they’re historically — and still predominately — “female occupations” goes far to explain this.

And probably wages for childcare workers too, since all but a small fraction are women. But we do, in a way, value their work. Otherwise, parents would just park their kids any old place.

So why do we have childcare workers who’ve got to campaign for $15 an hour — less than 200% of the federal poverty line for a three-person family, assuming (as we shouldn’t) full-time, year round work?

The issue here is somewhat different than for fast food workers. Not that they don’t deserve a decent wage too. But most of the skills their work requires are gained on the job — not skills they bring with them from postsecondary education, specialized training or prior experience.

And fast food restaurant owners claim that they’ve got to control labor costs to keep prices low because they’ll otherwise lose customers. Not letting them off the hook, mind you, but customers do balk at price increases. And owners seem not to have a profit margin they can whittle down much — not, at least, if they’re franchisees of the major chains.

By contrast, childcare costs are dauntingly high — and rising. Professor Deborah Phillips, who worked on the Berkeley study, says “we’ve no idea” where the money is going, since obviously not to wages. Perhaps to other costs, as spokespersons for childcare centers say.

Regardless, we’ve got two big problems — unaffordable child care and a great many childcare workers who can’t afford basic living costs, child care included.

We can’t look to the private market to solve either, I think. As EPI concludes, we’ll need public policies.

And we should have them because they’d serve vital public interests—supporting and suitably rewarding valuable work, ensuring that all our nation’s children have the daily care and experiences that give them a good start in life and more.

 

 


U.S. Poverty Rate Flat-Lines

September 16, 2015

Defying predictions, the Census Bureau just reported that 14.8% of people in the U.S. — roughly 46.7 million — were officially poor last year. Both the rate and the raw number are so little different from 2013 as to be statistically the same.

The newest rate is 2.3% higher than in 2007, shortly before the recession set in. This is yet further evidence that our economic recovery hasn’t brought recovery to everybody.

Much has rightly been made of flaws in the official measure the figures reflect. These include what the Census Bureau counts and doesn’t as income and the thresholds it perforce uses, i.e., the household incomes that set the upper limits for poverty.

The figures nevertheless represent reasonably accurate trends over time. So they’re disheartening, especially because improvements in the labor market suggested we’d see somewhat lower rates.

Also disheartening is the essentially unchanged deep poverty rate, i.e., the percent of people who lived (who knows how?) on pre-tax cash incomes less than half the applicable threshold — 6.6%. This is a full percent higher than in 2007.

Poverty rates for the major age groups the report breaks out also flat-lined. We thus still see basically the same large disparities.

As in the past, the child poverty rate was markedly higher than the overall rate — 21.1%. It translates into well over 15.5 million children — a third of all poor people in our country. About 6.8 million children — 9.3% — lived in deep poverty.

The senior poverty rate was again the lowest of the three the age groups — 10% or roughly 4.6 million people 65 and older. For seniors, the deep poverty rate apparently ticked up to 3.2%.

We still see marked disparities among major race/ethnicity groups too. For example:

  • The poverty rate for blacks was more than two and a half times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 26.2%, as compared to 10.1%.
  • For blacks, the deep poverty rate was 12%, while only 4.6% of non-Hispanic whites were that poor.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics was 23.6% and the deep poverty rate 9.6%.
  • By contrast, the poverty rate for Asians was 12% and the deep poverty rate 5.6%. Several analyses suggest we’d see a quite different picture if the Census Bureau differentiated among the sub-populations this group comprises.

Bottom line, I suppose, is that we’ve got new numbers, but no real change. So they tell the same old story. We’ve got a lot of prosperity in this country, but it’s far from equally shared.

We know quite a bit about how we could move toward greater economic and social justice. What we don’t have is the political will where we most need it.

NOTE: The Census Bureau simultaneously released the results of its Supplemental Poverty Measure — a departure from past practice. I’ll deal with them separately.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the reason the U.S. poverty rate for 2014 isn’t statistically different from the 2013 rate is that the Census Bureau reported results from a redesigned survey it began using last year, along with the old survey. Last year, it reported what the old survey showed. This year, what the new one did.


Census Bureau Busts Myths (Again)

July 20, 2015

You know the myths well, I suppose. Safety net benefits trap recipients in poverty — an assertion cagily repeated by the House Agriculture Committee Chairman just a few weeks ago. They’re a spider web, Presidential candidate Jeb Bush opines.

A new Census Bureau report tells us otherwise. About a third of the people who participated in one or more of our major safety net programs did so for a year or less during a recent four-year period that includes part of the Great Recession.

About the Report

The Census report updates a very similar program participation report issued about three years ago. Both use an ongoing survey of a sample of American households. So it’s possible to track entries into and exits from major safety net programs over time.

The report focuses on people who benefited from any of six programs that limited eligibility based, at least in part, on income — Medicaid, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP (the food stamp program), SSI (Supplemental Security Income), housing assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, lumped together with dwindling general assistance programs.

Many, many numbers in the report — some in the text, even more in graphs. It’s hard — for me, at least — to tease out what they tell us from a policy perspective. I’ve nevertheless taken a crack at it, as follows.

Not Much Program Growth

Participation rates in the six programs rose somewhat from 2009 to 2011, but then leveled off. In 2012, slightly more than one in five people (21.3%) participated in at least one.

Medicaid had the highest average monthly participation rate, increasing from 13.9% in 2009 to 15.3% in 2012. States that chose to expand their Medicaid programs presumably accounts for this.

On the other hand, the participation rate for housing assistance remained basically flat, at 4.2%. And the rate for TANF/General assistance ticked down to a paltry 1% in 2012. Not much of a safety net there for the poorest among us.

Deterrents to Work

The new Census figures don’t deliver a clear rebuttal to the claims that safety net programs discourage beneficiaries from working. They do, however, tell us a few relevant things.

First and foremost, by far and away the high percent of beneficiaries are under 18 — most presumably too young to work. In an average month during 2012, slightly over 39% of safety net beneficiaries were in this age group. That’s well over double the participation rate for working-age adults.

Among them, 33.5% of those who were unemployed participated in at least one safety net program during the four-year period. This is more than 10% higher than the rate for their peers who weren’t counted as part of the labor force because they were neither working nor actively seeking work.

Hard to Live on Those Benefits

Anyone who thinks the safety net is a comfortable hammock ought to take a look at the Census Bureau’s findings on benefits. During the four-year period, the median benefit for all six programs was $404 a month, adjusted for inflation.

The median is skewed upward by SSI benefits, with a median of $698 a month — about 75% of the federal poverty line for a single person.

Other major cash and near-cash benefits drag the overall median down. TANF/GA participants received a median of $321 a month.

Cycling In and Out

Long about the time the Census Bureau issued its report, Vox published a post by a working woman who’s angry as all get out because people look down on her for participating in SNAP.

She says, among other things, that she doesn’t “do it all the time” — only when she can’t pay her bills and also buy food for her family. She’s never participated for more than 18 months at a stretch.

We can’t see this sort of cycling in and out in the figures the Bureau reports. But we do see something that suggests it — and more clearly, the cycling out part.

Fewer than half the people who participated in any of the safety net programs did so for more than three of the four years the report covers. Variation there, depending on program — from 49.4% for housing assistance to 9.8% for TANF/GA.

At the same time, TANF/GA racked up by far and a way the highest percent participating for no more than a year. This doesn’t, of course, mean that states’ TANF program do a great job at moving poor parents from welfare to work that pays enough to support them and their children.

It could indicate how very low some states set their income cut-offs for continuing eligibility and/or their success at cutting their caseloads by other means, e.g., with sanctions that effectively bump families out of their programs or extremely short time limits, a strategy some Red states have adopted.

It surely does, however, suggest that families don’t linger in TANF because those benefits afford them such a comfortable hammock. Or snare them in “perpetual dependence” because they’d lose the cash and have to pay higher taxes if they moved up the income ladder. (Quoting Bush again here.)

So far as SNAP is concerned, less than a third (30.4%) of those who received them did so for more than a year — whether for 12 months running or some months at one point, some months later we can’t tell.

Another 38.6% participated for three to four years. This could indicate, among other things, under-employment — not failures to work by those who could be expected to, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says.

We know, from other sources, that it indicates rock-bottom earnings by fast-food workers and many in the retail sales sector.

Will any of this make a difference to policymakers who evince such concern about how our safety net programs discourage work — and are growing by unsustainable leaps and bounds? A rhetorical question. Yet the rest of us — some policymakers included — can come to a better understanding of how dynamic “the dynamics of economic well-being” in this country are, thanks to the Census analysis.


Low-Income Children Can Move Up If They Grow Up in a Good Place

June 11, 2015

We know you’ve got to choose the right parents if you want to wind up higher on the income scale — or so the research tells us. Now we’ve got a massive data analysis telling us they’ve got to choose the right zip code. And they’ve got to do it while you’re young, preferably before you turn ten.

The analysis was the focal point of a recent “conversation” about place, opportunity and policy hosted by the Brookings Institution. Featured speaker was the lead analyst, Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty.

Some mind-opening data, a handful of policy recommendations and a striking (to me) focus on race discrimination. Summary, brief as I could make it, follows.

Place Matters for Children’s Future, With Caveats

Children born in the bottom fifth of the income scale have a much better chance of moving to the top fifth as adults if they grow up in a community that gives them and their families advantages like decent schools, safe homes and streets, ready access to jobs and beneficial networks. No surprise here. But new numbers, some surprising.

Chances for low-income children raised in Washington, D.C. are 10.5%. This is better than the national average — 7.5%. And it’s a whole lot better than their counterparts’ chances in most of the deep South. But their chances would be better if they’d grown up in San Jose, California, hub of the Silicon Valley.

Shifting the income level, as the breakouts do, children whose families have incomes in the bottom quarter of the income scale will earn 5.8% more as young adults if they grow up in D.C. than if they’d grown up in “an average place.” But if they’d grown up in nearby Fairfax County, they could look forward to more than double that relative income gain.

In short, place matters, as another recent study also showed. This one, also co-authored by Chetty, reevaluated results of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity pilot.

Families got housing vouchers, but only if they moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods. An earlier evaluation measured increases in parents’ employment and income. Basically, zip.

But when Chetty and his colleagues looked at how preteens fared as adults, they found a 31% boost in earnings, compared to peers whose families didn’t get the MTO vouchers. This, I would guess, is at least partly because the young MTO beneficiaries had a higher college attendance rate.

For older children, however, moves to opportunity had negative effects on earnings, as well as other measures. The disruption of the move outweighed the advantages of living in a higher-income neighborhood, the researchers say.

What Public Policies Could Do

At the highest plane, these findings support two policy thrusts. The first is to help more families move out of high-poverty neighborhoods — and to do so while their children are very young. That would seem to require more housing vouchers, perhaps with subsidies scaled to encourage use in mixed-income neighborhoods.

But there’d have to be more relatively low-cost housing in those neighborhoods too. Several panelists at the Brookings event had quite a bit to say about exclusionary zoning, e.g., density limits that cap building height and/or prohibit multi-unit housing.

At the same time, it’s both practically and theoretically infeasible to move all poor and near-poor families out of high-poverty neighborhoods. And not all families want to move, fearing loss of “social capital,” e.g., connection to a local congregation, supportive friends nearby.

So the second major policy thrust is to improve those neighborhoods. Oddly, Chetty and panelists didn’t delve into the how issue, though one recommended diversifying public housing locations so as to dilute the poverty concentration.

Discussion focused mostly on affording families in high-poverty neighborhoods access to opportunities elsewhere — better schools especially. Recurrent, favorable references to vouchers, lotteries and charter schools. One panelist also mentioned redrawn public school attendance zones.

Chetty himself believes we need more “big data” analyses to pinpoint initiatives that would make economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods less disadvantageous for the children growing up in them.

But he did cite possibilities, based on his research to date — specifically, neighborhood characteristics correlated to better (and worse) outcomes for kids. Big news here is that the race in the place matters a lot.

Race Matters for All Children

We all know now, if we didn’t before that our public safety and criminal justice systems often make life worse — if they don’t end it — for residents in predominantly black neighborhoods. The victims are usually blacks.

What Chetty’s research tells us is that the racial makeup of a neighborhood affects economic mobility for whites, as well as blacks. Outcomes worsen as black density increases for both, he said.

We don’t need his research, though we’ve got it now to identify major factors — under-funded schools with over-crowded classrooms, less experienced teachers and insufficient resources to mitigate disadvantages that impair children’s ability to learn, lack of convenient public transportation, etc.

What Policies Have Done and Could

Plowing more money into the schools, transportation systems and the like would seem a solution to the drag on upward mobility that living in a predominantly black neighborhood exerts. And indeed, it is, but not the only one. Nor sufficient because it would address symptoms, but not root causes.

Several panelists zeroed in on the latter. Predominantly black neighborhoods —  and their attendant disadvantages — didn’t just happen, they stressed. The neighborhoods reflect housing segregation policies dating back to the 1920s.

And we’ve still got policies that perpetuate segregation. More widespread private-sector practices, however, e.g., selective treatment by real estate agents, egregiously unequal mortgage loan terms.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act was supposed to dismantle segregation and prevent further discrimination on various bases, including race.

But weak and/or co-opted local agencies let business go on as usual. And HUD has never had to resources to effectively enforce the law. Nor has it always been allowed to do what it could, as a ProPublica report indicates.

HUD has proposed new rules that would put teeth into the Fair Housing Act’s requirement that it — and thus state and local agencies — “affirmatively further” the purposes of the law. The final rules — assuming they’re issued and enforced — could make place matter less for low-income children’s chances of moving up the income scale. Make life better for their parents too.

But they won’t make every place a launching pad for upward mobility. For that, we need a broader range of policy initiatives. Bigger investments in equalizing opportunities too.

 

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 233 other followers