Recently I asked our 300,000 email subscribers and Facebook fans a simple question.
How does housing assistance improve the lives of those who receive it? Here’s the post on Facebook.
Now, I know we have an engaging group of social media followers that aren’t afraid to ask questions, share their opinions or help others out, but what happened when I asked that question left me speechless and wanting to march up to Capitol Hill and say:
“Look! Here are THOUSANDS of living, breathing reasons we should fund housing programs!”
That Facebook post was viewed by nearly 2 million people, received 16,000 likes, was shared more than 10,000 times and received nearly 4,000 comments.
There’s no question that I hit a nerve. One of our social media managers came to me and said, “Dave, what do I do on this post? There are hundreds of people just pouring their hearts out in response to your question.”
Keep pouring. The only way Congress and the public are going to see the good in housing programs is if the people who need them and those that have benefited raise their voices.
Advocates, progressive media, economists and social scientists, folks I’ll refer to as “cheerleaders”, do a wonderful job of exposing the “scientific” reasons housing programs are good for America.
Are the messages the cheerleaders are chanting getting through?
When you read the answers to my question in that post, you’d definitely say those cheers aren’t loud enough. But I’d argue that it doesn’t matter how loud the cheers are if they are ONLY coming from surrogates.
While I’m sitting here in my bright, comfortable office or this evening when I’m at home relaxing in my average, middle class home in a good neighborhood, when I write about how important it is to provide an adequate housing infrastructure in America, there’s a certain hollowness to my message.
Not that I don’t believe deeply in what I’m saying, but I’m speaking on behalf of someone else.
Throughout history, real social change has only taken hold when those being harmed have found their own voices. Rosa Parks was not a social scientist discussing the ills of segregation in some study and Susan B. Anthony was an actual woman who wanted to vote but was told she couldn’t.
If Congress and the voting public are going to understand the value housing security brings to our society and economy, they MUST hear the stories of those being harmed by the current system.
And those stories we got last week in the comments to my post…thousands of stories.
I decided to boil these stories down to a Top List. Top lists are common online and have become cliche but since I couldn’t find a list of ways housing assistance helps improve lives I figured one more cliche couldn’t hurt.
So, after pouring over nearly 4,000 responses to my question last week, here are the Top 5 Ways Housing Assistance Improves Lives.
1. Provide Access To Better Neighborhoods
Throughout history, across the world, poverty has tended to concentrate in pockets. So many souls competing for so few resources creates environments where human behavior can steer away from what everyone knows in their hearts is right. Rates of crime, drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse and a dozen other societal ills tend to be higher in areas of poverty.
This isn’t because poor people are inherently bad. It’s because poor neighborhoods lack employment, educational opportunities, access to adequate nutrition and capital investment.
Nor does it mean that most residents of poor communities are comfortable or used to that environment. To the contrary, for the majority, there is a longing to get out, but little hope of ever doing so.
Housing assistance can provide opportunities to lower income people to flee these bad neighborhoods and gain access the social, educational and financial resources that the middle take for granted.
This grandmother, raising her five year old granddaughter in a “bad neighborhood” because she can’t afford to live anywhere else, knows “housing assistance could help [her] to move into a more safe neighborhood” while wanting her “grandbaby to live a happier and safe life.”
One of the few tangible hopes for this obviously caring grandmother are programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program (LIHTC) or Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher but with long waiting lists and active, open discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders, even after suffering the long waiting list, will this grandmother be able to escape?
2. Improves Children’s’ Educational Performance Through Neighborhood Mobility
Anecdotally, almost everyone would agree that kids that live in safer, more economic and socially diverse neighborhoods perform better in school than their peers attending schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Even standardized tests used by many educational institutions break out their comparative analyses to differentiate test score for “suburban” and “independent” schools verses all public schools. Test scores for both suburban and independent schools are significantly higher than the full public school population.
But there have been some recent studies that have specifically focussed on educational performance and housing choice. In a 2010 study, Housing Policy Is School Policy, Heather Schwartz found that children from highly disadvantaged families that were integrated into low-poverty neighborhoods and schools had improved academic outcomes.
But interestingly, in the study, she found that integration into low-poverty neighborhoods had a greater impact on student’s performance than low-poverty schools did, indicating that the health of a neighborhood has a lot to do with the educational health of its children.
Schwartz goes on to discuss some of the prevailing theories for this:
“decreasing stress levels through less exposure to crime, gang activity, housing mobility, unemployment, weakened family structure, and through better access to services and resources such as libraries and health clinics; increasing academic expectations and performance through increased access to positive role models and high-performing peers, skilled employment opportunities close to home for their parents, quality day care and out-of-school resources, and prevailing norms of attending and staying in school; and promoting the adoption of pro-social attitudes and behaviors, with less exposure to peers and adults engaged in violent behavior, drug use, or other antisocial activities.”
And the poor families stuck in poverty-stricken neighborhoods know this.
The recent movement among Housing Finance Agencies to target more LIHTC funding toward economically diverse neighborhoods is a step in the right direction.
The Housing Choice Voucher was created to accomplish this but for the most part voucher recipients end up in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods because landlords still tend to push voucher holders to lower end properties.
3. Provides Security to Allow Higher Needs To Be Met
In 1943, in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Abraham Maslow established his now famous hierarchy of human needs. His five level hierarchy, often portrayed as a pyramid, starts with “physiological” needs (air, food, water) and culminates with “self actualization” — the realization of an individual’s full potential.
The second level of Maslow’s hierarchy is “Safety”, the stage where adequate housing, neighborhood safety and financial security lives. Without basic security, Maslow theorized that human beings can’t move on to other levels and eventually achieve their full potential.
It would stand to reason that a cramped apartment, with a leaky roof in a building with a broken elevator in a neighborhood branded by stray bullets and street corner drug deals, would pose problems in meeting this basic human need for safety. Until the need for safety is met, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization can’t be attained easily.
Many conservative pundits and opponents to public assistance programs argue that poor folk should do more to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. They ask the question “If someone wants to move to a safer neighborhood, why don’t they just work harder or start their own business?”
The answer to that question is usually that they are either already working as many hours a week as humanly possible or they are so overwhelmed in trying to meet their basic physiological needs that doing anything more by oneself seems impossible.
Most of these politicians, pundits and haters of the poor approach this question from a general position of safety. They’ve never faced the prospect of absolute failure. They’ve always had multilayered safety nets under them that they took for granted.
Most poor Americans don’t have the benefit of friends or families with extra bedrooms or a spare apartment over the garage. It would be a difficult (and I would argue foolish) decision to quit a minimum wage job that is at least providing for basic physiological needs to start a business and risk it all with no safety net.
Housing assistance is that safety net. An apartment in a LIHTC community in a good neighborhood with rents 25% below market or a Section 8 voucher provides that basic security one needs to even think about moving up the hierarchy.
Housing assistance can give poor Americans that “security” Maslow talked about and would allow them to eventually achieve their full potential. And when individuals fulfill their potential our community’s and country’s potential follows.
4. Allows Us To Focus On Family Connections
It would be hard to find any American who would say that family or friends are not an important part of their lives and a major source of happiness. Social scientists have found the stronger our family, friend and community ties are, the happier and more productive we are.
As you can see from Maslow’s hierarchy above, “love and belonging” are a key part of the path to fulfilling our potential as individuals.
Stop reading for a moment and consider how important your work, hobbies, gadgets or favorite TV show would be to you if you didn’t have a close friend or family member to share your life with.
For me, a guy that sometimes has to say to myself, “Stop working and enjoy life!”, the thought of not seeing my wife and beautiful kids is crushing. Without them, everything else seems trivial.
For millions of Americans, simply subsisting means working 75 hours a week (often in more than one job), sometimes far from home. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has done a good job of illustrating this with their annual Out of Reach report and Housing Wage calculator. According to Out of Reach 2014, a minimum wage earner would have to work 102 hours per week to afford adequate housing. In no U.S. state does a minimum wage worker earn enough to afford a decent rental unit at market rent.
So minimum wage earners get to choose between providing for their families or spending time with their families but not both.
Programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program provide just enough financial assistance to allow these folks to spend less time working overtime and more time building strong families that make our communities even stronger.
5. Increases Confidence and Self Esteem
Though this article didn’t start out as a climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s ended that way.
The final step toward self-actualization is “esteem”.
No matter what number we wrote into the Income line on our tax forms this week, pride is a trait we all hold in high regard. We display that pride in bumper stickers for our honor students, Facebook posts about high school graduations and gloating speeches in the barber chair about our kids science fair project.
Pride, confidence and self esteem are what gives us the courage to face life challenges and muster the energy to resolve them.
But most of us don’t suffer from a false sense of confidence. Our confidence is actually dictated by how well we solve problems and provide for our families. Feeling like we’re in a hamster wheel, constantly struggling to pay the rent or the electric bill, can take a toll on our morale and self esteem. This can become a vicious circle preventing us from ever achieving self-actualization.
Housing assistance programs can provide that little bit of psychological lift we need to be stronger individuals and part of stronger communities.
Four Thousand Comments, Millions of Lives
After pouring over thousands of comments from regular people that either currently benefit from housing assistance or dream of receiving assistance, it is unsettling to know how many people aren’t receiving the assistance that could improve their lives.
I hope their voices are eventually heard and our leaders in Washington finally realize how housing assistance improves lives.