Safety Net

Public Housing Can Be Good for Kids. But There Isn’t Enough of It.

Finish this sentence: “Children who grow up in public housing…”

Whatever your political leanings, you probably didn’t come up with “…do better in life than their peers who didn’t.” But according to a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), it’s true. The authors compared siblings who spent different amounts of time in public housing, and found that the children who spent more time in the projects had higher earnings and a lower chance of being incarcerated. Kids got a similar benefit when their families received vouchers to help them pay the rent at a private apartment.

The point, of course, is not that public housing is an ideal place to spend a childhood. It’s that the alternatives can be much worse.

In my city, Nashua, New Hampshire, one of those alternatives is the Country Barn Motel and Campground. It’s an old house and barn that the owners turned into a bunch of individual rooms, plus some trailers on blocks. Everything’s painted a rustic brown, and when I visited—a week before Halloween—it was decorated with fake cobwebs.

It’s a nice place in a lot of ways. Kids ride bikes around the quiet, wooded grounds, and neighbors volunteer to babysit for each other. But many of the families here are facing the kinds of stress that can have troubling long-term consequences for kids.

Inside one door, guarded by three carved pumpkins, Crystal and Jimmy live with their baby, five-year-old son, and three-year-old daughter in a single room. There are two beds, a TV, a refrigerator, and a stove—only one of the electric burners works—and that’s about it. They’ve been here for about five months. While I talked with the adults, the older kids showed off their gymnastic moves, mostly ignoring a cartoon playing on the TV.

“We’re trying to save money for a place, but everywhere’s expensive,” Jimmy said.

As of 2012, there were around 6.5 million U.S. households waiting for either a spot in public housing or a housing voucher.

Before moving here, the family lived with Jimmy’s stepmom. But, between her five kids and their three, squeezing everyone into a three-bedroom apartment didn’t work for long. Crystal and Jimmy have been on a wait list for public housing for two years, but their number hasn’t come up. Researchers who study housing policy have found that’s not terribly unusual. As of 2012, there were around 6.5 million U.S. households waiting for either a spot in public housing or a housing voucher.

Crystal and Jimmy do get government help with their rent, but it’s through a city program that’s supposed to be a short-term emergency backstop. They worry that they could lose that assistance any day now. Meanwhile, Jimmy said, living at the motel is tough on the kids.

“Just putting them to bed, everything’s extra hard,” Jimmy said. “We’re so on top of each other. If one of them’s awake, they’re all awake.”

The U.S. Department of Education warns that moving around a lot, or living in temporary situations like motels or doubling up with other families, tends to hurt children’s school achievement and emotional development. One recent, randomized study in New York City found that families that don’t get help with housing are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared with those that move to new, subsidized housing. That repeated exposure to acute stress might help explain the long-term effects on kids’ incomes and incarceration rates that the new NBER paper found—the stability matters.

David Evans lives with his girlfriend and their three kids, including a newborn baby, in one of the trailers at the Country Barn. It’s $225 a week—cheaper than living inside the motel—but it only comes with a hot plate for cooking, and you have to use a shared bathroom in a separate building. Between his paycheck from a warehouse job and his girlfriend’s disability benefit, they can only afford rent, food, and clothes for the kids. An apartment with a monthly rent might be cheaper, but they’d have to save up for the security deposit.

Things were easier when the family got part of their rent through a federal Section 8 voucher. But then his girlfriend got into a dispute with her family, who had control over her Social Security checks. Ultimately, David and his girlfriend lost access to the checks, which made it impossible to pay their rent. They were evicted—which meant permanently losing their eligibility for the voucher.

“Telling my kids we have to go live in a trailer, that’ll break you down,” Evans said.

Evans is a former heroin addict, clean three years. He’s used to working hard at seeing the bright side of things. But he said living in a 200-square foot trailer is hard on the whole family, particularly his eight-year-old stepdaughter.

“She gets edgy, so she has a little bit of an attitude,” he said.

In fact, the girl has been lobbying her mother to go live with her biological dad, who has been in and out of jail and recently got back in touch after years out of her life.

“She’s even like ‘Mommy, it’s just until you get an apartment,’” Evans said. That’s hard on his girlfriend, but he sees where the girl is coming from. “I don’t want to be here either.”

Unlike a lot of people at the Country Barn, Angela Winslow said she really likes it here. She’s fixed up her room in the motel with country-style knick-knacks and some of her own furniture. But she may not be able to stay long. When she moved in two and a half months ago, she had custody of her seven-year-old grandson—so she was able to get some help from the local welfare office.

“He’s such a great kid,” she said. “I had him since he was 12 months old.”

Recently, Winslow’s daughter regained custody of the boy. Winslow doesn’t think that’s a good situation for him—she isn’t crazy about some of her daughter’s life choices—but she’s been happy to at least care for him on the weekends when her daughter drops him off.

Now, though, since she’s no longer his legal guardian, she’s liable to lose her housing assistance, health insurance, and food stamps. If she can’t stay at the Country Barn, Winslow said she’ll move in with her other daughter. They get along well, but she’ll have to sleep on the couch or a blow-up mattress. That will complicate her weekends with her grandson, and it might not be the best situation for her and her daughter either.

“She’s a night owl,” she said. “I’m not.”

The thing is, even if getting help paying for housing would benefit Angela Winslow’s grandson, and David Evan’s three children, and Crystal and Jimmy’s kids—and all the rest of the kids who’ve spent time at the Country Barn—there isn’t enough funding for it. The U.S. hasn’t built much public housing since the 1990s, and it has demolished some of what it used to have. Housing vouchers aren’t filling the gap, since only 1 in 4 households that qualifies for a housing voucher actually gets one. Meanwhile, the federal government spends almost twice as much on mortgage interest tax deductions, which overwhelmingly go to the wealthy, as it does helping people with rent.

Winslow said her worries about losing her room, along with everything else that’s happened in her life over the past few months, have gotten her feeling kind of depressed. She’s hoping her case worker returns her call about staying in the hotel soon.

“If they give me the news they’ll help me, then of course I’ll stay here,” she said.

Otherwise?

“I’ll just figure it out.”

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Culture

The Cost of Coming Out in College

After two years of gradually coming out to friends and family, three weeks ago I finally proclaimed that “I’m here, and I’m queer,” to everyone on social media. Being painfully millennial, I made an extra effort to ensure that my Facebook status was just right. It was the most public part of my coming out process, and I wanted to strike the right balance between conveying my pride in being an out, queer woman and explaining why I had kept my orientation a secret for so long.

I received, to put it mildly, a warm reception. My friends shared their support in the comments, and I even got a share and a big shout-out from my mom, who voiced her clear and unconditional love and support.

My friend Julius, a sophomore at Wake Forest University, was not as lucky. A few weeks ago, he mentioned that his parents cut him off during his coming out process. His tone was casual, so we moved along with our conversation about whatever was going on in the queer universe that day, but he’s mentioned since then that finances have been tough. Julius’s job is a work study position that limits him to working a few hours per week, so it’ll be hard for him to make ends meet on his own.

Fortunately, Wake Forest has resources for students like Julius. School administrators helped him file as an independent so that he could apply for financial aid on his own and stay enrolled in the university. There were a lot of hoops to jump through—and he’ll have more student debt as a result—but it worked out in the end.

Most colleges and universities do not offer the type of support that Julius received. According to Campus Pride only 7% of campuses have institutional support for LGBT students, which leaves many students who are rejected by their families to fend for themselves during complicated legal and financial proceedings. Julius noted that in order to accomplish his dependency override, he needed three documents of support—one of which had to be from a certified counselor. He will also have to write a statement detailing the painful events leading up to his financial independence every year when he reapplies for his financial aid package.

Some students fare much worse, and are ultimately forced to drop out. Harlan Mitchell, a 21-year-old queer person living in Knoxville, had to leave the University of Tennessee after he fled his abusive home last year. “It’s really kind of difficult to get a degree, to get a good job, [and] to do all the things to support yourself financially,” Mitchell said. For a few months, he slept on friends’ couches while he saved money he earned at his retail job. If he hadn’t been able to rely on friends, he says he isn’t sure where he would have gone next.

This is not a fringe issue.

For queer youth, this is not a fringe issue—half of us experience a negative reaction from our parents when we come out. Without financial independence, we’re particularly vulnerable—whether it’s to increased debt, the inability to complete our education, or homelessness. This follows us into adulthood, with the potential to impact our earnings and our ability to hold successful jobs. Add in the fact that it’s legal to fire and evict LGBT people because of their identity in most states, and it becomes easier to understand why the number of LGBT people who reported feeling as though they are struggling financially is up by a margin of 10% despite improvements in the economy as a whole.

The reality is, coming out is a financial privilege that not everyone can afford. Ultimately, that limits the economic mobility of queer people—it creates a space in which not all of us are free to be who we feel we are, and who we want to be.

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Labor

Conservatives Say Raising the Minimum Wage Kills Jobs. New Research Says They’re Wrong.

Raising the minimum wage would help a lot of Americans. It would raise wages for 35 million workers, bring 4.5 million people out of poverty, and reduce the wage gaps that plague women and people of color.   Local movements to raise the minimum wage have started to take hold—30 cities have raised their minimum wages since 2014—but the minimum wage has not been increased at the federal level for seven years.

For decades, the main argument conservative policymakers and business leaders have been making against raising the federal minimum wage is that it will bring about economic doom in the form of massive job losses. In 1980, then-Governor Ronald Reagan declared that “the minimum wage has caused more misery and unemployment than anything since the Great Depression.” Today’s conservatives seem to agree, with Ted Cruz warning that “every time we raise the minimum wage, predictably what happens is a significant number of people lose their jobs.” Speaker Paul Ryan has dared to get specific with his doomsday predictions, saying “when you raise the minimum wage, you’ll lose over a million jobs.”

New analysis from the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows that this isn’t the case. From 1993 to the second quarter of 2015, cities raised their minimum wage 43 times. In 74% of these occasions, the unemployment rate did not increase a year after the minimum wage hike. Of the 11 cases where the unemployment rate rose a year after the minimum wage increase, six were during the Great Recession when the unemployment rate rose across the United States. Due to data limitations, the analysis was unable to evaluate more recent minimum wage increases that have occurred later in the economic recovery.

By themselves, these findings aren’t enough to prove that the minimum wage does not cause job losses—but when they’re paired with the numerous academic studies that have also found that raising the minimum wage has no discernible effect on unemployment, it does poke holes in conservatives’ reasoning.

The argument in favor of raising the minimum wage is still crystal-clear

As the argument against raising the minimum wage becomes increasingly fuzzy, the argument in favor of raising it stays crystal-clear. The current minimum wage is a poverty wage: a family with one child and a single parent working full-year, full-time for the federal minimum wage would be below the poverty line for a family of two. Raising the minimum wage would help these workers directly, and it would have ripple effects throughout the entire economy—it would reduce inequality, increase the GDP, and even create modest job growth.

It’s clear that conservatives’ claims about the impact of the minimum wage do not square with the evidence. Cities that have raised the minimum wage have not experience massive job losses or economic ruin. And with the minimum wage losing value every year it is not hiked, many cannot afford continued opposition to increasing the federal minimum wage.

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Media and Politics

The President of My Dreams

In my dream, the next president is an anti-poverty president because he or she knows deep down that the way we think about poverty in America is wrong, the way we treat people in poverty is wrong, and therefore what we do about poverty is more off the mark than need be.

My president declares his or herself the Educator-in-Chief on poverty, and uses the bully pulpit to teach Americans. She tells the stories of struggling people and their experiences, and regularly takes us to communities that are used to being dismissed, demonized, and disempowered.

My president shows Americans that people in poverty are not who we have been led to believe they are—some fixed group that has lost its initiative; that, in fact, more than half of us will experience at least one year of poverty or near poverty during our working years. My president recognizes that while generational poverty is important, it is only a small part of poverty; that over a 3-year period, only 3.5 percent of people were in poverty for the entire 36 months, while the national poverty rate ranged between 15 and 16 percent.

My president teaches that most of us fall into poverty due to universal experiences—like the birth of a child, an unexpected illness, job loss, or reduced work hours—which is why we have a safety net that is there for all of us; and though it is much-maligned, it is highly effective.

My president explains that without the safety net our poverty rate would be nearly twice as high today—approaching 30 percent. He or she states clearly that cutting poverty in half is not “losing a War on Poverty”—cutting poverty in half means that we are half way to where we want to be. (She will also suggest that we stop using that tired, dated metaphor.)

My president tackles head-on the foolish notion that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant—our cash assistance program—should serve as a model for our safety net. My president acknowledges that whatever the intentions of those who created the program, it has not done what it was supposed to do—unless what it was supposed to do was make assistance nearly impossible to come by, erode any national standard of basic economic decency, and drive people into deeper poverty.

My president explains to us that when TANF was created in 1996, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, 68 were able to receive cash assistance; now that number is down to just 23. In 12 states, ten or fewer families are helped for every 100 in poverty. My president warns us that when we hear talk of block-granting Medicaidfood stamps, or housing assistance, what we are talking about is less healthcare, less food, less housing, and lower standards for assisting vulnerable people.

Instead of embracing a broken program like TANF, my president embraces the evidence about what works and shares it with the American people. He or she teaches, for example, that women who had access to food stamps early in life fared better as adults than their peers who didn’t—that they had better health outcomes and increased economic self-sufficiency, including less welfare participation. He or she notes, too, that boosting a struggling family’s income when children are young is associated with greater education performance and increased earnings when those children reach adulthood.

My president reminds us that we need to use such evidence to keep moving forward in our anti-poverty efforts, and to ensure that we don’t turn back to recent and far worse times. He or she tells us to consider the words of Peter Edelman, who traveled down to Mississippi in 1967 with then-Senator Bobby Kennedy, and said, “We saw children who were tangibly, severely malnourished—bloated bellies, running sores that wouldn’t heal. It was this incredibly awful, powerful experience that’s with me all the time.”

My president reminds us that was what America looked like before we expanded the food stamp program to take on hunger.

In my dream, the next president is an anti-poverty president

My president uses all of these tactics—visits to struggling communities and people’s own stories, evidence of what works and doesn’t work, and his or her own courage and determination—to embark on a new anti-poverty/pro-opportunity agenda. It’s an agenda that among other things includes: a bold jobs program to help rebuild our neighborhoods, schools, and infrastructure; raising the minimum wage so that it can once again lift a family of three out of poverty just as it could in the late 1960s; closing the gender pay gap, which would cut poverty in half for working women and their families; paid leave and affordable childcare, so that people can work and take care of their families and don’t have to choose between them; immigration reform so that our most vulnerable workers aren’t exploited; and a Commission to explore reparations for African Americans and educate the public about this issue.

My president constantly engages with the grassroots and the nascent anti-poverty movement to build support for action—just as occurred with the passage of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act, and more recently, the Affordable Care Act.

For too long we have been listening to lies, not recognizing our progress, and failing to fight together for what we know will work to ensure that everyone has a shot at the American Dream.

My president puts an end to that madness and begins a new day.

This post is modified from the original, which appeared at TheNation.com.

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Justice

The Americans Who Are Actually Being Robbed of Their Right to Vote

The United States has a long and sordid history of disenfranchisement. It took nearly 200 years for the principle of “one person, one vote” to become the law of the land, and now much of our progress towards equal voting access is being undone. In the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, which gutted key elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, new barriers are cropping up that could make it harder for many Americans to vote.

The majority of voters are still unlikely to face issues on Election Day, but the new burdens fall disproportionately on a select cohort of Americans. Here are the groups of people who will face some of the steepest battles to cast their vote.

People of color

African-Americans had the highest voter turnout rates in 2012, but new obstacles could keep many black voters from the ballot box this year. Laws that require voters to present photo ID at the polls—which have cropped up in eight states since 2013, bringing the total to 34 states—disproportionately impact African-Americans. That’s because people of color are less likely than whites to have the specific forms of required photo ID, and because these laws are more common in  Southern states (where African-Americans are concentrated).

In addition to obstructive voter ID laws, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans are often plagued by language barriers. While the Voting Rights Act contains protections for language-minority voters, poll workers are not always aware of them (so they might not honor these voters’ rights, for example, to have someone assist them at the polls).

People of color often have to take more time and travel further distances in order to vote. In 2012, black and Latino voters waited nearly twice as long as white voters to cast their ballots, likely due in part to state decisions to restrict early voting. And this year, Native Americans in northern Nevada will have to travel nearly 100 miles round-trip to cast their ballot in November.

Homeless people

First, the good news: in recent years, court decisions and new laws at both the state and federal level have eliminated formal bans on voters who do not live in a “traditional dwelling.” As a result, homeless people are now formally able to register and vote in every state.

But homeless adults—of whom there are at least 400,000 nationally—still face a variety of informal barriers. Some states require voters to provide a mailing address when they register. Other states require voters to prove how long they have lived in a voting district, a task that is understandably difficult for homeless people. And again, stricter voter restriction laws—like photo ID requirements—fall particularly hard on the homeless community, who are less likely to have a driver’s license or other forms of acceptable identification.

People with criminal records

Americans with criminal records, especially those with felony convictions, face some of the steepest—and most convoluted—barriers to the ballot box. In fact, a new study found that a record 6.1 million people are barred from voting this year because of felony convictions.

Because voting for people with felony convictions has not been federally regulated, those seeking to register face a patchwork of state voting laws that range from no restrictions (in Maine and Vermont) to a lifetime of disenfranchisement (in 10 states). Ten states also restrict voting for people with misdemeanors. These restrictions disproportionately impact people of color. In Florida, felony disenfranchisement bars 23% of African Americans from voting, and four other states also suppress the votes of 1 in 5 black citizens.

Unfortunately, the confusion and misinformation around state laws can even discourage eligible Americans with criminal records from voting. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “Many people with past criminal records mistakenly believe they are ineligible to vote.” As a result, many end up staying home unnecessarily on Election Day.

Women

Even though women made up a majority of voters in 2012, voter ID laws are creating new obstacles for them, too. Thirty-four states require voters to present some kind of identification. Roughly 90% of women change their last names when they get married (and often change their names back following a divorce), and many may not realize their voter registration does not match the name on their ID until it comes time to vote. What’s more, women are also more likely to belong to other groups who face barriers at the polls—low-wage workers, seniors, students, and the poor.

Low-wage workers

More than 23 million people—disproportionately women and people of color—work in low-wage jobs. These workers are especially likely to have volatile and erratic schedules, which makes it hard for them to plan to get to the polls. Additionally, only 30 states require employers to give workers time off to vote—and even among states that do provide workers leave to vote, that time off is not always paid.

For workers who subsist on very low wages, the decision to take time off to cast a ballot can result in a difficult financial loss. That may explain the 30-point gap in voter participation along income lines: Less than half of people earning under $30,000 a year voted in the 2012 election, while over 80% of people earning over $150,000 voted. As a point of comparison, 99% of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans voted.

Transgender people

Transgender citizens have become a vocal voting bloc this election cycle, but stringent photo ID laws threaten their ability to cast a ballot. An estimated 27% of trans people lack identification that accurately reflects their gender, in large part because they face uphill legal and financial battles to update their ID documents. For example, in at least 15 states, trans people are required to show proof of a gender reassignment surgery—a task that is simply not possible for those who are unable or choose not to have the surgery.

People with disabilities

People with disabilities face a wide range of voting obstacles, but chief among them are transportation, lack of accommodations at the polls, and poll workers who are ill-equipped to offer help. A full 30% of people with disabilities are unable to drive, which makes it hard to get to the polls in the first place—particularly for those voters who live alone or in rural areas. Even if they manage to make it to their polling location, a lack of ramps or curb cuts and limited support for voters with vision impairments make it difficult for people with disabilities to vote—even though laws like the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and the Americans with Disabilities Act were designed to improve ballot access. These barriers help explain why turnout rates among voters with disabilities—especially those with cognitive disabilities—tend to be lower than voters without disabilities. In fact, it can be difficult for people with disabilities to even register to vote, since most online voter registrations are not accessible for people with vision-related or cognitive disabilities. All told, these barriers to access could account for as many as 3 million votes.

None of these barriers are inevitable. Most are the consequences of policy decisions, some of which were made with the deliberate intent of disenfranchisement. Election Day gives Americans the opportunity to reverse these laws, and to elect policymakers who will work on behalf of those who don’t always have a voice.

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