Originally published in T’he American Prospect on December 16, 2016.
Last week, Ben Carson, Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, gave a talk at Yale University. He told students that the rumors that he planned to end housing programs for the poor are “a bunch of crap” and there is “no way” he’d ever do that. But housing advocates shouldn’t relax just yet. Even if Carson and Trump decide not to axe entire programs, they could still implement policies that create all sorts of new hardships for the millions of low-income people who live in public housing and use federally subsidized housing vouchers.
Trump would not be the first president to go after federal benefits for the poor. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which dramatically upended welfare in the United States. The law mandated two significant changes: the imposition of time limits for cash assistance, and the requirement that welfare recipients seek employment.
The welfare reforms of the 1990s have decimated low-income families. Over the past two decades, the number of families living in extreme poverty increased by 159 percent, while the number of families receiving cash assistance plummeted. Though more single mothers entered the workforce, the low-wage jobs they managed to find did little to alleviate their poverty. Moreover, when the economy tanked during the Great Recession, roughly one-fifth of all poor single mothers could neither find work nor access welfare. In 2015, researchers Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer wrote that more than a million U.S. households with roughly three million children survive on less than $2 per day.
Carson, the retired neurosurgeon and failed GOP presidential contender who recently said that he felt unqualified to lead any federal agency, is likely to rely on congressional Republicans who have long sought to adapt Clinton’s welfare reforms to federal housing policy.
In mid-November, Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the Financial Services Committee that oversees HUD, spoke at the Exchequer Club in Washington, D.C., and said the federal housing agency “symbolizes the left’s top-down, command and control, centralized planning approach” that measures compassion for the poor “based on how many programs Washington creates” and how much money it spends. He vowed to switch gears, and “bring new ideas to the table” to fight poverty.
Indeed, shortly afterward, in Dallas, he told the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families forum that Republicans would “turn the page” on housing come January. “The new Congress will help lift the poor onto the ladder of opportunity by attacking poverty at its roots, starting with work,” Hensarling said. “We will reform our housing programs for the poor to reflect the value of work.”
He added that HUD rental assistance programs, such as Section 8 vouchers and public housing, while they may be helpful, “do not promote economic freedom” and actually stand in the way of upward mobility. He promised to align housing benefits with cash assistance for “work-capable” recipients in order to “encourage” individuals to move towards jobs, careers, and economic independence.
House Speaker Paul Ryan also endorsed these ideas in his “Better Way” policy agenda, released in June. He said the federal government should “expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work” in exchange for welfare benefits. He also called for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits to align with housing assistance.
These conservative proposals would have a devastating impact on people who are unable to meet work-for-benefits requirements. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than half of all recipients who lived in federally subsidized housing in 2015 were elderly or disabled, and more than a quarter of all households had a working adult. Six percent had a preschool-aged child, or a disabled child or adult.
While CBPP says there’s little evidence available on the effectiveness of work requirements in federal housing programs, there’s ample data to show that cash assistance work requirements have done little to increase employment over the long-term, and have even sunk families into deeper, more severe poverty. This is critical to note given the significant barriers low-income individuals face to accessing stable jobs. As CityLab’s Brentin Mock found, workplace racial discrimination, employment penalties associated with incarceration, entry-level jobs that go to college graduates, and increased automation have all made it even harder for the poor to lock down steady employment.
As Jared Bernstein, a CBPP senior fellow, told The Atlantic: “I cannot overemphasize the importance of this fundamental flaw in poverty policy, i.e, the assumption that there is an ample supply of perfectly good jobs out there that poor people could tap if they just wanted to do so.”
Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coaltion, took to Twitter last week to push back on Paul Ryan’s proposal to impose work requirements on public housing residents and federal voucher recipients. She urged the House speaker to invest his energy in devising strategies to make housing more affordable for low-income people. Only one out of four eligible low-income renter households even receive federal housing assistance, Yentel noted, and it’s those unassisted families in particular who are “one illness, job loss, or paycheck away” from homelessness.
Congressional Republicans’ interest in imposing work requirements and time limits on federal housing subsidies fit in well with the conservative rhetoric that Ben Carson has spewed over the past several years. During his presidential run, Carson insisted that welfare programs create cultures of dependency, harm poor families, and even “reward” people for having babies out of wedlock. Some have suggested that Carson’s lack of policy experience could mean he’d bring fresh blood and a “blank slate” to the housing agency. That’s doubtful. His dangerous ideas about welfare and work are already deeply ingrained, and, unfortunately, poised for prime time.