Newsflash: Housing Un-Affordability not a Feasible Incentive to Finding “Better Paying Jobs”

Bloomberg is the only Republican man I’ve ever voted for (I have voted for Republican women in local elections in a increase-women-in-office strategy), and I’ve generally been pleased with his job performance to date.  (Other than his insistence on being a Yankees fan; traitor!)

Needless to say, I am quite disappointed to read the following in this morning’s coverage of record numbers of homeless in NYC (my emphases, per usual):

…halfway into the Bloomberg administration’s five-year plan to reduce homelessness by two-thirds…Last month’s total, 9,287 families, was the highest since the city started keeping and publicly releasing such figures in 1979, according to the group, the Coalition for the Homeless…while more homeless families were seeking refuge in city shelters, the number being moved into permanent housing fell last year by 11 percent compared with 2005…The report comes at a time when the amount of housing affordable to low-income residents continues to shrink and the gap between average income and rent continues to grow…

Foolish me, I equated Bloomberg’s relatively progressive public health, education and housing policies with an above-average political intelligence regarding strategies to alleviate inequality and poverty and increase opportunity and mobility.  Turns out, he’s just as susceptible to age-old “culture of poverty” beliefs about poor people’s behaviors as the rest of us:

One major problem…is the 20 percent annual reduction in housing subsidies, which is intended to encourage participants to find better-paying jobs

Actually, as a senior policy analyst from the Coalition points out:

“…It [effectively] serves as a work disincentive [by prohibiting] families from gaining employment income because that would cut them from welfare…In the meantime, their housing subsidies are cut, leaving them unable to pay rent and, often, sending them back into shelters…”

With considerable sangfroid, Arnold S. Cohen, president and chief executive of Partnership for the Homeless, suggests that we see these findings as illustrative of “growing inequality in New York.” 

“This is the story about the other New York,â€? he said, “another city of unimaginable poverty.”

True dat, Arnie. 


By now, I’ve made clear at the RP and elsewhere the rising economic inequality in the U.S.  Welfare reform in 1996 contributes to this.  It dramatically reduced the number of people collecting welfare in the U.S., but it didn’t alleviate or reduce poverty.  All it did was limit the amount of time people could receive welfare benefits (other benefits, such as food stamps, are subject to different rules).  It effectively made a higher percentage of the poor “invisible” by removing them from the public system, without actually erasing the poverty in their lives.  Furthermore, welfare and its kin (medicaid, food stamps) aren’t available to single poor people; they’re designed for poor families – essentially, women and children – for whom – as any working woman knows – the ease of finding and keeping work is very complicated given, at a minimum, the expense and lack of childcare in the U.S. 

It drives me bananas the underlying themes in strategies like Bloomberg’s that the majority of the poor aren’t working hard enough to find “better-paying jobs.”  As if working for $7/hour without insurance or benefits is fulfilling, satisfying or sufficient.  We should all know by now that they certainly don’t cover the average cost of housing in the U.S.  Yet poor families – poor mothers, mainly, though fathers too – are penalized by a very unequal system for their lack of skills (e.g., education, language) and resources (e.g., child care, a car) based on an assumption that they’re not seeking the more quality jobs that theoretically exist for them. 

How can we implement such policies when we also espouse that immigrants are in this country to fill jobs that Americans won’t take?  Why are we punishing those at the bottom when we seem to think they’re fulfilling a necessary economic role?  Shouldn’t we expand our social safety net to take care of this needed underclass?  Or do we risk by investing public funds in better education, childcare options and housing moving people up and out of this bottom tier?  And then what would we do?  We might actually have to naturalize those undocumented workers arriving to fill all those jobs that would necessarily open up.  No, better to keep people in a permanent state of uncertainty so they can’t aim higher. 

I’m railing here, and I’m aware that some readers will want to challenge this post with notions of free riders “profiting” off the welfare system.  There are several things to keep in mind regarding this point.   There are many many more poor people in the U.S. than are collecting public benefits.  Most people who collect benefits enter and exit the system more quickly than five year maximum mandated in the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program.  The people who remain on TANF and are subsequently “kicked off” thus face many more structural barriers to employment and income generation than those who exit the system for other reasons.  2002 and 2003 data, for instance, indicate that ~50% of welfare recipients were working. 

There are sharp gradations in U.S. economic insecurity – ones that poverty data nor I sufficiently highlight – between, for example, those in extreme poverty (many, but not all, of our public housing residents, for example), the working poor (those that are working full-time but still can’t make ends meet), and those families that temporarily experience hunger, homelessness and the need for public assistance due to lost jobs, disability or death.  There are also major social pathologies that obstruct many families and individuals from moving up and out of the bottom economic tier, including mental illness and drug abuse, and disabilities.  I am intimately familiar with many of these issues in my family, and I’m also aware of the possibilities to earn $35k-40k per year in hourly wages with only a G.E.D. and sobriety to boast about on your resume. 

One of the reasons I carry on about the overemphasis in this country on the plight of the “middle-class” is because only now as more and more Americans face economic insecurity is this suddenly an issue.  Meanwhile 10-20% of our population at any time confront declining incomes or mobility, or virtually permanent poverty for the bulk of their lives.  (Only 10%, you shrug?  Well, isn’t that the theoretical number of gays and lesbians in the population, and their rights certainly capitivate the public imagination.) 

Of late, poverty is making its way back on the political agenda, see, for example, the platforms of John Edwards, the Center for American Progress, or L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa. (Meanwhile, NPR in Boston announces this morning that Obama finally pays his overdue parking tickets from his Harvard Law days.)  And New York – with its massive affordable housing crunch, high poor and immigrant populations, questionable public schools, shrinking manufacturing sector, global economy, etc. – is an ideal-type city illustrating the central challenges to reducing inequality in this country. 

Even if it seems just a kooky outlier in our national universe.


4 Responses to “Newsflash: Housing Un-Affordability not a Feasible Incentive to Finding “Better Paying Jobs””

  1. March 8, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Eight in 10 New Yorkers say homelessness is a major problem both locally
    and nationally, according to Public Agenda’s latest survey. More than
    one third of those surveyed worry at least somewhat that they could become homeless
    themselves. Affordable housing is New Yorkers’ top concern according to
    the study, and 89 percent say that housing costs being “too high� is an
    important cause of homelessness.

    Check it out:

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