What Could Give Low-Wage Workers More Stability?

June 27, 2016

My last post recapped the story LaJuana Clark, a formerly homeless, still struggling woman because it’s unique only in the particulars. What I heard — and not only from her — drove home how unstable the lives of so many low-wage workers are.

Public policies can, to some extent, remedy this. They already do, as the post suggests — some much more than others. But those that do most form an irregular patchwork that does nothing for millions of others.

Only Congress can ensure that all low-wage workers nationwide have some modicum of financial stability and opportunities to gain more. Here, as promised, are some examples, along with some pieces of the patchwork, mostly from LaJuana’s and my hometown.

Higher Minimum Wages

I’ve already noted the District of Columbia’s soon-to-be minimum wage increases. These could give not only minimum wage workers, but many who earn more enough income to avert evictions, utility shut-offs and other such destabilizing and demoralizing experiences.

They’ll still face formidable challenges without other public policies to help them because it costs a lot to live in the District — an estimated $3,510 a month for a single person with no children, like LaJuana.

A step toward stability nonetheless. Workers in nearly half the states are legally entitled to no more than the federal minimum wage — still $7.25 an hour and worth about 9% less than when it became the minimum.

So it’s up to Congress to set a higher base. Democrats have tried since 2007. Some now aim for $15 an hour by 2020 — and boosts thereafter to keep the wage growing at the same rate as the median for all workers.

It’s just a plank in campaign platforms now, of course. But even if the next Congress passes the bill and the President signs it, low-wage workers still won’t have anything close to such stability as a living wage is supposed to provide.

Paid Leave for Health and Urgent Family Needs

Most low-wage workers have even less to live on if they take time off for compelling reasons. About 80% with the lowest wages lose pay when they’re too sick to work. And only 12% of all private-sector workers can get paid for any time off to care for a child or other family member.

The District and four states require paid sick leave, though not for all workers. The District also, like three states, requires employers to provide some paid family leave. But most, including the District do little or nothing for a goodly number of workers who can least afford pay losses.

Here again, we have a remedy in Congress. Bills introduced last year would cover all workers and provide all but the highest paid about two-thirds of their wage for up to twelve weeks of time off to deal with their health, including pregnancy and childbirth, and/or care for family members.

These are the latest in a series of stalled paid leave proposals dating back to 2009. Understandably then, we see more prospective state-level action — among them, a bill in the DC Council that would create the most expansive paid leave program in the country.

So more stability for some low-wage workers, as well as others, but not for the vast majority.

More Predictable, Suitable Work Schedules

Meanwhile, low-wage workers, especially those in service-sector jobs would still lack a critical kind of stability — predictable work schedules.

Without them, workers can’t budget because they’ve no idea how much they’ll earn. They can’t take second jobs, much as they need the money, or enroll in classes that would increase their earning power. They’ve no end of difficulties with child care too, of course — when to schedule it, whether they can afford it, etc.

Bills in Congress would give certain low-wage workers more predictable schedules and require employers to at least consider requests for changes. They’d have to have a good business reason for denying them in certain cases too — mostly those I’ve flagged as problems now.

Some workers would also get paid more unless employers changed their practices. If they didn’t, they’d have to compensate workers for time between shifts on any given day.

Unpredictable work schedules would also, in some cases, require more pay. For example, workers would have to get paid for at least an hour if they had to call in to learn if they were needed for the upcoming day and weren’t.

They would also get an extra hours’ pay if their employer changed their schedule with less than a day’s notice, unless they had to fill in for someone unexpectedly absent. Not the same thing as mandating predictable schedules, but “a first step,” as the bills say.

These bills aren’t going anywhere soon. So again, we see some state and local policymakers putting curbs on irregular schedules — another variegated piece in the patchwork.

Eight states and the District require employers to pay workers when they show up, as scheduled, and are sent home because they’re not needed. Not all must get paid at their regular rate or for all their scheduled hours, however.

San Francisco has something akin to what the federal bills would require, though only for a subset of workers — mainly those employed by retail chains. Several other cities are reportedly under pressure to pass similar laws.

A bill awaiting action by the DC Council would provide workers employed by both retail and restaurant chains basically the same protections against egregiously unstable schedules. It would also give them an opportunity to work more hours.

Here too it borrows from San Francisco, which requires covered employers to offer part-time workers more hours before hiring other workers for basically the same tasks. So their workers could earn more, gaining some stability that way.

We thus see progress in a few solidly progressive communities — and could see more. But no hope for most of the 6.4 million or so involuntarily part-time workers nationwide until we’ve got progressive majorities in Congress.

There’s another chapter in this (in)stability story — job losses and what happens to workers then. This deserves more than I can even summarize here — partly because, once again, how they fare depends on where they live.

So I’ll leave unemployment insurance for another post.


What Would House Speaker Ryan Do In Her Shoes?

June 23, 2016

LaJuana Clark is a formerly homeless, still struggling District of Columbia resident. She spoke as the lead-off expert at a recent event the Coalition on Human Needs and partners sponsored to explore what we know works — and doesn’t — to reduce poverty and expand opportunity.

A big takeaway for me — and not only from her story — is the need for stability, why so many low-income people don’t have it and what policymakers could do about that. The story here, with a few policy remarks.

LaJuana had a job. She lost it, and the significant other she was living with kicked her out. So she slept on the street for a couple of nights and then in the apartment house lobby. She found a shelter to take her in, another job and an apartment.

Then her wages were garnished. So she couldn’t come up with the rent and was back on the streets. She’s in what the nonprofit operator calls an affordable housing community now — a source of stability, plus caseworker services.

She’s working toward an associate’s degree in information technology, while also working part-time as a security guard — trying, in other words, to become fully self-sufficient, while sufficing for herself to the extent she can.

But her employer cut back on her hours. So she’s earning about $1,000 a month — the current minimum wage in the District. She pays $200 of that to get to and from work and school. She’s presumably got to pay other costs for her IT training too.

She’s better off than many low-wage workers. She’s stably housed, at least for now. She’s got affordable health care because the District has expanded its Medicaid program, as the Affordable Care Act envisioned.

And she has no children — thus no childcare costs or needs to carve out time for kids. Nor needs to pay for their clothing, transportation, school supplies, etc.

If she gets sick, she’ll have some paid leave — another advantage to living in the District. But as a part-time worker for a small organization, she’ll probably have very little and perhaps no job if she’s got to take more time off from work anyway.

She could again have her work hours cut, even if she always shows up when scheduled. And her schedule could change at any time, perhaps creating conflicts with the hours she’s supposed to be in classes.

Even the fact she’s responsible for no one but herself has downsides. The federal Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, does very little for childless workers like her.

District now matches the federal credit. But that’s still a maximum of $506. And LaJuana will get less than that because the credit starts phasing out before earned income is enough to lift a single person over the federal poverty line.

So she’ll still hover just above it — if nothing further happens to destabilize her life. A big if, given what’s happened to her before.

CHN et al. hosted their poverty and opportunity event in response to the House Republicans’ anti-poverty plan — now commonly (and aptly) called House Speaker Ryan’s plan. Not surprisingly then, LaJuana was asked what she would say to him if she could.

“Put yourself in my shoes,” she said. “What would you do?” Not what we find in his plan — unless the allusion to increasing the EITC refers to expanding it for childless workers, a reform he earlier supported.

Supported, however, only with an offset that could make things worse for poor and near-poor people generally. And supported only as an alternative to raising the minimum wage.

LaJuana should count herself lucky that his views have no influence on District policymakers, who’ve already boosted the wage far above the federal and will now boost it to $15 an hour by 2020, plus further increases to keep pace with inflation.

Her question, however, is one that federal and state policymakers should ponder. They, after all, get paid a whole lot more than even the highest minimum wage, know their schedules far in advance and get paid even when they must (or choose to be) absent.

Some states and the District have moved on several fronts to provide low-wage workers and their families, if they have them, with some modicum of stability. Bills pending in Congress would afford them more stability no matter where they live.

I’ve got more to say about these, but will conclude here with a couple of general remarks.

As LaJuana’s story suggests, stability has many interlocking parts. Some are beyond the reach of public policies — relationships with significant others, for example. Others aren’t, e.g., the wage floor, how much pay workers can count on receiving.

Publicly-funded programs that fill in what wages won’t cover provide some stability too. LaJuana, for example, knows she’ll have food — at least most of the time — because she receives SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

We all need a fair degree of stability in our lives. Not only our well-being, but our productivity depends on it. We need stability to figure out what we want to achieve, plan how to get there and then follow through.

La Juana’s doing just what folks like Ryan want low-income people to do — working for pay, while trying to better her prospects by pursuing more education.

It’s what she wants to do — and surely what we want for her. But anyone who walks in her shoes would know that she wouldn’t have gotten as far as she has if she’d had to scramble for shelter every night and enough food to keep her going. Nor if she’d suffered from untreated illnesses, including those such hardships cause.

And anyone would know that she and many other low-wage workers need laws that give them more stability than they’ve got now.

NOTE: CHN has posted a video recording of the event. So you can hear what LaJuana and the other speakers had to say for themselves. See some interesting slides too.




A Missing Father’s Day Gift: Reforms to Flawed Child Support System

June 20, 2016

Roughly 5 million fathers* in this country owed child support three years ago, but only somewhat over 3.7 million paid even part of what they owed. Nearly one in five didn’t pay anything at all.

Some may truly have been deadbeat dads — fathers who chose not to pay. But studies suggest that more were “dead broke, not deadbeat,” as a recent CLASP presentation puts it. If not dead broke, then still saddled with child support obligations beyond their means.

The Obama administration could have given these dads an overdue Father’s Day gift — a final rule to update the child support enforcement system.

But the dads are every bit as vulnerable to unaffordable — and escalating — child support obligations as they were when the window for commenting on the proposed rule closed seventeen months ago.

It would benefit both the fathers who owe child support — or will — and the mothers and children who need their support. Here’s how.

More Realistic Support Orders. States may base child support obligations on what parents can potentially earn if they’re unemployed or underemployed, i.e., earning less than the decision-makers believe they could.

The notion here is that some dads deliberately choose poverty or near-poverty to shirk their child support responsibilities. Or they work off the books to hide what they earn.

Using so-called imputed income, rather than what fathers demonstrably earn is obviously problematic — perhaps especially so for those in low-wage jobs because what they earn is an iffy calculation.

How much, for example, can a restaurant worker or department store clerk earn when so many retail businesses cut their hours back without warning? How much when businesses of various sorts hire extra workers when they need them and let them go when they don’t?

The proposed rule would require states to use actual earnings and income as the basis for setting child support awards. They would also have to ensure that awards leave non-custodial parents enough to pay for basic needs, e.g., food, housing.

Less Counterproductive Penalties. States obviously have to base support orders on some calculation of ability to pay. If fathers truly can’t comply, they have some obligations to modify the orders.

But they often don’t. In fact, they sometimes make matters worse. They impose fines, for example, increasing the debt — and thus the likelihood that fathers will fall further behind.

They may suspend drivers’ licenses, making it impossible for the dads to get to work — or do work that requires driving. They may suspend occupational licenses, which so many jobs now require.

States may also jeopardize a dad’s job by garnishing his wages, i.e., requiring his employer to send a portion to the agency that distributes child support.

They may send the dad to jail — obviously making work impossible. Yet penalties for nonpayment mount up because courts sometimes treat incarceration as voluntary unemployment. (Not a joke.)

When the dad returns to the community, he’ll have a criminal record — a major barrier to getting hired, as we know. Some dads do get new jobs, however — and then find themselves back in jail because they’re unable to pay off the accumulated child support they owe.

Even dads who’ve spent no time behind bars may have a hard time landing jobs because their child support debt damages their credit record — something else many employers check and use to screen out applicants who’d otherwise qualify.

The proposed rule would limit cases where a parent in arrears is jailed. Beyond that, it would encourage, but not require states to consider a parent’s basic needs before doing other things that would tend to make his financial situation worse.

More Help for Increasing Income. One obvious way to make meaningful child support payments affordable for low-income parents is to help them find decent-paying jobs.

The proposed rule would allow states to use some of the child support enforcement funds they receive for a range of job services, e.g., training, help with job searches, subsidies for work-related costs like transportation and tools.

A nine-state study by the Urban Institute found that non-custodial parents who collectively owed more than half the unpaid total in 2006 had little or no income states could identify — at most, $10,000 a year.

Those with no reported income were expected to pay a median of $217 a month in child support, according to a prior Institute study. About the same for those whose median monthly income was $293.

You can’t get blood out of a turnip, as the saying goes. And heaping fines on top of fines, tossing dads in jail, perhaps charging them for court costs and/or upkeep there won’t extract a drop. But enabling them to earn enough to make paying child support feasible surely would.

Better for Mothers and Children, As Well As Fathers. Enabling poor and near-poor fathers to find — and keep — jobs that pay enough for them to meet their child support obligations without foregoing food, housing and the like would seem like a no-brainer.

Making support orders more realistic and confining penalties to genuine deadbeats might, however, seem to let fathers off the hook at the expense of their children and the mothers who are raising them.

But, as the National Council of State Legislatures says, those mothers and children generally aren’t getting anything from low-income fathers now.

Holding them accountable for something they can’t do only discourages them from trying, the head of the federal Child Support Enforcement Office suggests.

Some studies have linked regular child support payments to fathers’ continuing involvement in their children’s lives, including one that suggests payments increase contacts over time. That would seem generally a good thing for both dads and kids.

Outraged Congressional Republicans, however, view the proposed rule as a threat to personal responsibility and “strong families” — not to mention their prerogatives as policymakers. They’ve moved to block the administration from issuing a final version — or making any part effective by other means.

Might this explain why another Father’s Day has passed without child support reform? We outsiders don’t know. But whatever the reason, it’s a sad thing.

* The Census Bureau report I’ve used doesn’t include figures for non-custodial parents who owe child support. It does, however, provide them for custodial mothers owed child support and what portion, if any they received. I’ve used these to back into the figures for fathers.

Aging in Place a Challenge for Low-Income Seniors, If They Still Have a Place

June 16, 2016

Looking back to Older Americans Month, I seized on one hardship that too many of the celebrated suffer — food insecurity and outright malnutrition.

That’s not the only reason why the so-called golden years aren’t so golden for a lot of seniors. Another that looms even larger is unaffordable (or no) housing.

Acute Affordable Housing Shortage

Last month brought us a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force. As you’d guess, it focuses on the urgent need for more affordable housing suitable for seniors and the implications for their health and our country’s healthcare system.

We know, of course, about the shortage of housing that the lowest-income renters can afford. There were about 11.3 million of them in 2013, including 2.6 million elderly singles or couples. The market lacked about 6.9 million units that were both affordable and available to rent.

But not all those units would suit the needs of seniors who’ve developed (or always had) difficulties moving around without walkers or wheelchairs.

Only 3.8% of all housing units in the country have design features to accommodate moderate mobility limitations, the task force co-chairs say. These, note, are not necessarily affordable for lower-income people or available for anybody to buy or rent.

Higher-income people can afford to have features in their homes modified, e.g., doors widened, ramps built. They can have doorknobs and turn-on faucets replaced with levers if their hands have weakened or stiffened.

Or they can move to an apartment that has such features — even, if they choose, an assisted living facility where they can age in place, with increasing services as they need them. About 70% ultimately will for even such basic daily tasks as bathing, dressing and taking prescribed medications.

But an estimated 1.8 million seniors paid more than half their income for rent two years ago — an upward trend that’s unlikely to turn around on its own.

They’re already short on money for food, transportation and their share of medical costs — an especially big bite of the budget, as we can see from how they boost the more accurate senior poverty rate.

Seems the crunch will worsen as more people live long enough to become seniors — and longer thereafter. An estimated 1.8 million more senior households — a total of 6.5 million — will have less than $15,000 a year to live on by 2024, the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies reports.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s task force recommends more affordable housing for seniors, including a new, special form of supportive housing — supports here being in-home health care and help with those other daily tasks.

The only federal program specifically for this sort of housing has had no funds for grants to develop new units since 2012. And contracts that keep an estimated 41,900 affordable will have expired within the next eight years.

What the task force doesn’t address is the income side of the equation, beyond recommending state and local programs to defray senior homeowners’ costs.

There’d be fewer seniors struggling to pay for rent if they’d gotten paid enough while working to have had income left over for long-term savings.

There’d be fewer if Social Security retirement benefits for former low-wage workers were higher — a forward-looking policy change already teed up by leading Democrats (and predictably trashed on by the Washington Post, among others).

There’d be fewer if the Earned Income Tax Credit didn’t exclude most workers over 65 — and do so little for childless workers.

As things stand now, a very large number of seniors and prospective seniors who hope to age in place will have a hard time doing that without risks to their health.

And the risks they knowingly take to cut costs — skimping on meals or skipping doses of medication, for example — may not save enough for them continue paying for their own place.

Rising Tide of Homelessness

Homelessness is, of course, the end result of the affordable housing shortage for some seniors, as well as younger people. Recent months have brought us several articles on the aging of America’s homeless population.

Both The New York Times and ThinkProgress.org focus on seniors living on the streets or the equivalent. Many have been homeless for a long time and suffer from serious health problems, including substance abuse.

Some, however, became homeless only after a fairly recent setback — often a job loss, but sometimes other problems, e.g., a stroke that forced a woman to leave her subsidized unit because the building had no elevator.

Long-term and newly-homeless older people have shifted the profile of our country’s homeless population. Nearly a third of those counted two years ago were at least 50 years old — a 20% increase since 2007, the Times reports.

A 2010 analysis by the National Alliance to End Homelessness concluded that senior homelessness would increase by 33% within the next 10 years, assuming no significant changes in population or poverty rates.

By 2050, more than 95,270 seniors would be homeless, according to the Alliance’s projection — unless, of course, policymakers invest significantly more in affordable housing and in cash or cash-equivalent benefits.

Even the little I’ve pulled together here shows we’ve got the tools in the toolbox. What we seemingly don’t have is the political will to make them sufficient to the needs of homeless and at-risk seniors.

Nor those who’ll have a good chance of becoming seniors, if they don’t become homeless first. So if we’re going to celebrate Older Americans Month, we ought to put more money where our mouths are.

Not Such Golden Years for Many Older Americans Because Hunger Stalks

June 13, 2016

I learned only belatedly that last month was Older Americans Month — an after-the-fact answer to why my social media accounts had so many links to posts, feature stories and the like about seniors.

We who’ve entered our supposedly golden years are, as a whole, better off than younger people, thanks mainly to Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare. But substantial numbers of us suffer hardships of various sorts. And in some cases, public programs don’t serve us as well as they could.

As followers know, I’m passionate about food. So I’ll deal here with what public programs do — and don’t — to ensure that all seniors have enough of it and of the right kinds for lives as healthy as we older folks can expect.

Seniors at Risk of Hunger, Despite SNAP

Nearly 9% of households with at least one elderly member were food insecure in 2014. These, as you probably know, were households that couldn’t always afford enough food for everyone to eat healthfully.

Elderly people living alone had a slightly higher rate of food insecurity. And 3.8% of them — about 480,000 — didn’t always have enough to eat, healthful or otherwise.

The Food Research and Action Center views such evident struggles with hunger as a symptom of “senior SNAP gaps” — gaps state agencies and community-based organizations can partially close.

Agencies, for example, can make the application process simpler by, among other things, replacing an extremely burdensome requirement to document medical expenses with a standard excess medical deduction.

Both they and community-based organizations can do targeted outreach to seniors who probably could receive SNAP benefits, but haven’t applied. We’ve long known various reasons for this that outreach can address.

Seniors don’t know they’re eligible, for example. They’d feel ashamed to receive a welfare benefit. Or they believe (wrongly) that they’d be effectively taking food away from someone needier.

But this is far from the whole story, as a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis shows. Elderly people living alone — as the vast majority of those in SNAP do — received, on average, $119 a month in 2012-13.

That translates into about $1.30 per meal — yet another sign that SNAP benefits are too low. Too low for anyone, but for some seniors especially because they can’t stretch their benefits as the food plan USDA uses to set them assumes.

They may, for example, not have ready access to a full-service grocery store — and even more likely, not a form of transportation that would enable them to stock up on food for a week, let alone buy more of what’s on sale.

They may not have either the kitchen facilities or the capacities to prepare their meals from scratch either. But neither they nor anyone else can use SNAP benefits for carryout meals. And microwaveable meals are obviously budget-busters.

USDA cited the age-related challenges in its fact sheet for last year’s Older Americans Month. Yet only two initiatives it announced then addressed problems inherent in the food plan — both pilots, including one I’ve celebrated before.

It would perhaps enable more seniors — and people with disabilities, regardless of age — to use their SNAP benefits for home-delivered groceries. But the benefits would still reflect unrealistic assumptions.

Hunger Not Only Because of SNAP Gaps

Some seniors, of course, can’t get out and about at all — or cook food delivered to them, whether through the SNAP purchasing and delivery option or by some well-meaning relative or friend.

Meals on Wheels enables them to eat, though generally not every day, my Googling around suggests. Those who can get out and about can get meals at a community center, church or some other facility that has them eating together.

The Older Americans Act is a major source of funding for both. Congress recently reauthorized it, with some improvements in the meals portion.

That, however, doesn’t ensure any particular level of funding for nutrition assistance — or any other service state agencies can use their OAA share for. The programs get whatever Congress decides in any given year.

So they took a hit when the Budget Control Act required across-the-board spending cuts. Congress has reportedly restored what the nutrition programs lost. But they’ve gotten no increase in the past two years.

Not surprising then that communities still report waiting lists for Meals on Wheels. A genuine risk of malnutrition, it seems — and a foregone opportunity to reduce other health risks.

A recent study of that fine control-group kind found that daily home-delivered meals improved seniors’ mental health and sense of well-being more than frozen foods delivered weekly.

The Meals on Wheels group also reported falling less, suggesting potential cost-savings beyond those that simply providing enough to eat would achieve.

Further savings, of course, insofar as home-delivered meals can enable seniors to age in place, as most of us want to, rather than moving to a nursing home — at a cost so high that all but the wealthiest (or best-insured) would ultimately have to rely on Medicaid.

As more of us live longer and the costs of feeding us rise, the OAA nutrition programs will need more money to remain an effective part of the food safety net.

This is also true for other public programs that help feed low-income seniors — the Child and Adult Care Food Program, for example. The meals and snacks it subsidizes don’t make much of a dent in senior hunger — only 120,000 or so adults served and not all of them elderly.

A piece of the food safety net nonetheless — and one I would think already needs more money, given the reimbursement rates.

The bottom line here is the bottom line. Food insecurity and hunger — among seniors, children and everyone in between — is a problem Congress can solve. But it can’t without shortchanging other basic needs until it puts a higher priority on them than on reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone.

Down from the soapbox now so that I, among the fortunate, can go fix dinner. But I’ll climb back on it to take up housing — another basis need that even more seniors can’t afford.

House Republicans Take on Poverty, Have Little New to Say

June 7, 2016

House Speaker Paul Ryan may not be the policy wonk some say he is, but he’s a smart politician. He’s decided the Republicans have to start being for something, rather than just against everything the Obama administration has done — and Democrats want.

And he’s decided that being for radically less federal spending won’t do — not, as least, unless it’s a seemingly secondary benefit of policies that have something else going for them. Understandably, since reducing the deficit by spending cuts alone hasn’t polled well.

So he appointed House Republicans to task forces, each charged with producing policies that their party can be for. He revealed the first in the “better way” series this morning — the anti-poverty package.

This shouldn’t surprise us, since he’s made a big deal about his concern — genuine, I think — for poor Americans. Nor, I suppose, should the recycled rhetoric surprise us.

What might — it surely did me — is the egregious lack of policy specifics, except for the portion on evaluation. That, as you might expect, takes off from the claim that we can’t say whether most programs for low-income people work, but can say that most evaluated don’t.

The report leads off with an overview of the “welfare system” — not what we think of as welfare, but all federal programs that link eligibility to income levels, including some targeted to communities, not individuals.

Nothing new here, since it borrows from Ryan’s earlier account of the War on Poverty. The framework for what follows is thus that we’ve too many programs, run by too many federal agencies spending too much — and to no effect, since the poverty rate (two years ago) was basically the same as in 1996.

We’ve got a better measure than the official measure House Republicans use. An analysis based on it found that safety net programs the official measure doesn’t count have significantly reduced poverty rates.

The task force, however, uses the official rates as a jumping off point. Like Ryan’s earlier takes, its report asserts that the federal government measures success by how many people receive benefits, rather than by how many “get out of poverty.”

So how then are to we get more people out of poverty? We’ll expand work requirements, of course. All “work-capable” adults must work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits of any sort.

How they’re to find jobs or suitable training opportunities the report doesn’t say — presumably, however, not through more federal funding.

We do, however, find an additional incentive states may use to prod them into finding jobs that pay far more than the minimum wage — a time limit, as well as a work requirement for people who live in public housing or receive any other sort of federally-funded housing assistance, e.g., vouchers.

It’s not only potentially employable adults who’ve got to work. The task force rehashes the old complaint about the number of children who receive Supplemental Security Income benefits because they have severe disabilities.

They receive benefits for too long, it says — on average, 26.7 years, which doesn’t seem all that long to me. However, they won’t receive benefits any more, if the task force has its way.

It would “reform” the program so as to provide “access to needed services in lieu of cash assistance.” No recognition whatever of disabilities that make gainful work impossible — or the fact that parents of SSI recipients must often support them indefinitely.

The task force does acknowledge “challenges” work-able adults face — child care, for example, transportation, stable housing and “help buying groceries.”

What then should the federal government do? “Work with community partners,” i.e. nonprofits and for-profit businesses, “to address hurdles.” Period.

The federal government could, however, penalize states that didn’t get people out of safety net programs swiftly — hurdles notwithstanding. It would give them an incentive by ratcheting down reimbursement rates as people remain in the programs longer. Not a forthright proposal. The report again fluffs.

On a more positive note, the task force recommends providing work-readiness activities for noncustodial parents so as to increase their ability to pay child support.

It would also let states receive waivers from unemployment insurance rules so they could explore better ways to get UI recipients back into the workforce. Nothing to object to here, though one might after seeing those better ways.

More generally, the task force would, of course, give states more flexibility. It alludes to letting them link welfare programs — presumably as block grants, though it uses neither that term nor others House Republicans have come to prefer.

Those voluntary links nevertheless recall Ryan’s Opportunity Grants — those mega-block grants he floated nearly two years ago.

We also find what seems a block grant in the section on education. First we’re treated to the usual trashing on Head Start for failing to produce demonstrable, lasting academic outcomes — broadened, however, to apply to early childhood education programs generally.

Then a suggestion that the federal government could “combine investments,” streamlining and simplifying its involvement. Involvement here seems reduced to sponsoring research and sharing results.

Ryan appointed a separate task force to deal with tax reform. We’re nevertheless treated to a rehash of the now-familiar claim that safety net benefits discourage work because recipients lose them as they earn more.

We’ve little evidence that they actually respond to the so-called cliffs by working less — or for less money — than they could. Perhaps they know that they’d almost always do better by working and earning what they can.

Be that as it may, the task force has only two general solutions. One would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. For whom and how it doesn’t say.

The other solution — yet again — is more state flexibility. This supposedly would enable states to tailor benefits packages so that no one lost more than they gained by working.

Most, as the report acknowledges, don’t lose — at least until they’re earning quite a bit. That’s feature, not a bug, of course, in programs intended to help low-income people meet their basic needs. But it’s another dagger to thrust at the safety net.

Bottom line for me is that there isn’t much there there — to borrow from Gertrude Stein. Not, at least, much there there for us who’ve paid any attention to what House Republicans — Ryan in particular — have proposed and tried to justify ever since they gained a majority.




House Republicans Move to Expand Moving to Work (Again)

June 6, 2016

We’re familiar by now with studies showing that poor families, especially the children do better when they move to better neighborhoods. Fewer of us perhaps are familiar with Moving to Work — a program that House Republicans now want to expand to virtually all public housing authorities in the country.

Congress expanded MTW only six months ago, setting the stage for nearly tripling the number of participating housing authorities over the next seven years.

Now the House Majority Leader has introduced a bill that would ultimately let all housing authorities that like what MTW offers to have it, except those the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had recently rated as troubled.

MTW has thus far been an experiment of sorts. The ultimate aim is to identify practices that would achieve at least one of three purposes more effectively than regular rules for Housing Choice vouchers and the main federal funding streams for public housing allow.

The demonstration project, as it’s called, still awaits a comprehensive, independent evaluation. In other words, Congress has barreled ahead — and may barrel further — without knowing whether Moving to Work works.

One can understand why House Republicans would find MTW so attractive. Basically, it converts the voucher and public housing programs into a block grant that affords participating housing authorities a lot of flexibility.

They can shift funds from one housing program to another — or to other programs, so long as they in some manner assist “substantially the same total number of eligible low-income families” as they would have if they hadn’t merged their funds.

They don’t have to assist them as much, however, or for as long. They don’t have to enable poor families to move to neighborhoods with better opportunities to work or with better transportation to get to where work is.

They don’t have to provide training and other services that would enable potentially employable family members to find gainful work in the neighborhoods they’re living in either.

Some housing authorities may have done both. We know, however, that some have achieved savings — one of those main purposes — at the expense of poor families.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cites increases in the portion of income families must spend for their housing. Instead of the usual 30%, more than half the housing authorities have raised rents for at least some very poor families, it says.

Families in several communities had to come up with $200 a month or more — unless they sought and received hardship exemptions. Not likely, unless things have changed a whole lot for the better in recent years.

Some housing authorities have put time limits on housing assistance and/or established work requirements — in both cases, for any household with an adult assumed capable of getting a job, i.e., not disabled or elderly.

Here too one can see why leading House Republicans fancy MTW — just as they still do Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which, as you probably know, features both time-limited benefits and work requirements.

The flexibility MTW provides has had another, apparently more general consequence — fewer housing vouchers that families can use to help pay rent wherever they can find a moderately-priced apartment a landlord will rent to them.

Two years ago, MTW housing authorities shifted nearly a fifth of the funds they’d otherwise have had to use for vouchers to “other purposes,” the Center reports. Or to no purpose, as was the case in Chicago.

More often, housing authorities have used their voucher funding stream for other defensible purposes. Many, I gather, have tapped it to repair and renovate public housing units — or replace them with subsidized units in new mixed-income developments.

We can’t altogether blame them for this sort of fund shift. As I’ve written before, Congress has persistently shortchanged the public housing capital fund, leaving them with far less money than they need to keep their public housing units habitable.

And for some poor and near-poor people, public housing is a better option than a voucher that would require them to find a suitable apartment — people with disabilities that require features most apartments don’t have, for example.

But you’re not going to find much public housing in those neighborhoods where families could move to work. So fund shifts that left some 63,000 eligible families without housing vouchers two years ago seems a reason to hit the pause button on MTW.

Not the only reason, however. I’ve already mentioned several others. but one of the biggest is the fate of block grants generally. TANF is a prime example — now worth 32% less in real dollars than when Congress created it.

It’s not the only block grant that’s significantly shrunk. Two that HUD administers have lost well over half their value — and in less time than TANF.

All this said, MTW seems to have enabled some housing authorities to innovate in ways that benefit low-income families. Some, for example, have streamlined administration by rechecking income eligibility only every couple of years instead of annually.

So they’ve cut costs, thus freeing up funds they could shift to providing more and/or better subsidized housing, while also relieving households of a time-consuming, burdensome routine imposed more often than needed.

Some have used more funds than they otherwise could have for project-based vouchers, i.e., the kind that subsidize specific housing units, rather than whatever unit a holder can find to rent.

Flexibility here may have enabled agencies to provide more affordable housing in those better neighborhoods — and to lock in affordability, wherever the projects are, says Abt Associates, the source of these and other examples.

“May,” you note, not necessarily did. And “some” because we’ve no study that’s looked across-the-board at what MTW agencies have done — let alone in light of results that matter, e.g., less homelessness, fewer poor families stuck in poor neighborhoods.

HUD has appointed a committee to advise on MTW evaluations, as Congress required. This seems a step toward assessing the outcomes of policy changes housing authorities have adopted.

Whether these assessments can show whether Moving to Work works is a question mark. Surely Congress should wait for an answer before deciding whether to expand the block grant further.



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