Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Work requirements weakened federal welfare assistance in the 1990s. Applying the same rules to affordable housing assistance today is a big mistake.
In 1996, Republicans in Congress reconfigured federal welfare assistance by making financial aid for the poor contingent on applicants finding jobs. Under the new welfare program they instituted, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), instead of cash going directly to poor families, states were given block grants of federal funds that could be used for anti-poverty programs. As recently as 2013, though, states had been using almost half of that funding for other areas of government that don’t necessarily assist poor families.
Meanwhile, the experiment of tying financial assistance to employment status has been a failure: The number of families served by TANF has decreased by 60 percent since it first launched 20 years ago, and not because more families are getting richer. Poverty, and deep poverty in particular, has only grown in the U.S.
Current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was hailed as the Republican authority who was finally going to address the poverty problem, in large part to thwart accusations that his party doesn’t care about the poor. His long-awaited antidote was delivered on June 7—a 35-page proposal on “poverty, opportunity, and upward mobility” for America’s neediest families. The top item in the proposal’s key principles: “Expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work in exchange for welfare benefits.”
Ryan wants to apply the same work-requirement policies that have driven the welfare system into dysfunction and driven more families into deeper poverty. Ryan’s report, in fact, doubles down on this approach by making employment mandatory for people who receive federal housing aid. The proposal is out of touch with the realities and lives of those too poor to afford housing on their own. It fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of those receiving housing assistance are either unemployable or would have great difficulty sustaining a long-term job.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that more than half of households living in subsidized housing—public housing, housing secured with vouchers, or other federal aid—were either elderly or disabled in 2015. Another six percent had a preschool-aged or disabled child in the household. Over a quarter of subsidized households actually had someone in the household working.
Ryan’s proposal seems to assume that people living in public housing or receiving vouchers don’t want to work—a canard that has unfortunately heavily influenced many of the policies put forth by his party. His anti-poverty report does not take seriously the needs of those with disabilities, the elderly, or those who can’t afford daycare for their children in order to work. Even where the report does mention childcare, it fails to offer any funding suggestions for such services so that parents can find work. The report is not very clear on how any of the new work-requirement programs linked to housing would be paid for. It mostly assumes that states will take on those funding burdens. From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report:
The House GOP plan fails to explain how state TANF agencies would somehow serve large numbers of rental assistance recipients as well — only 8 percent of rental assistance recipients also are TANF recipients, so the proposal would substantially increase TANF agencies’ workload — without substantial additional resources. The plan does not call for any increase in TANF funding, and it’s improbable states would provide the needed funds from their existing funding.
Moreover, the plan also doesn’t call for any additional funding for child care, and states currently serve only one of every six eligible low-income children in their subsidized child care programs. (Many states have opted to shift TANF funds to other parts of their budgets rather than to support work activities, child care, or cash assistance for TANF participants, and they are unlikely to shift those funds back to aid rental assistance recipients.)
Ryan’s report also assumes that there are plentiful jobs available for people on housing assistance. But it’s not just the disabled and the elderly who are unable to work. There are a number of other factors that also keep people from jobs:
- Racial discrimination in the workplace;
- The impact of incarceration on employability;
- The rising trend of people with college degrees taking entry-level jobs;
- The expansion of technology absorbing jobs that normally would go to people.
Many won’t be able to readily obtain work because of these issues, but they will still need somewhere to live. Under Ryan’s proposal, many of those people, along with the elderly and disabled, would simply be out of luck—and out of a home—which would send them into even more precarious financial straits. This is exactly what happened the last time federal assistance was experimented on by linking it to work-requirement policies. Indeed, many financially strapped cities are today struggling with how to care for homeless families who were failed by these policies. It’s hard to imagine that these work requirements actually work for anyone.