The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 22, 2013

Desperate trade-offs among the working poor

November 22, 2013

Housing is often the biggest expense for American households. And a widespread shortage of affordable housing means that every month, many low-income people are forced to choose between rent and other necessities. This can lead to many financial hardships, including food insecurity.

So, you might reasonably assume that low-income people lucky enough to receive help paying for their housing would not have trouble putting food on the table.

Well, you would be wrong.

The recent baseline survey for the HOST demonstration in Chicago and in Portland included a series of questions to gauge food insecurity among 366 participating families, almost all of whom receive a large housing subsidy. What we found is startling. Parents reported worrying food would run out, actually running out of food, and cutting the size of meals or skipping meals at more than twice the rate we see in the general population.

HOST food insecurity

You might think, well, those families must not be working, so of course they’re struggling more than everybody else. Again, not true. Food insecurity is actually higher in Portland where HOST participants, many of whom are immigrants and refugees, are more likely to be employed.

Further analyses of the survey data confirm that it’s not just the chronically unemployed who have difficulty putting enough food on the table. Parents who had worked in the past 12 months reported food insecurity just as frequently as HOST parents who stayed out of the labor market entirely. This may reflect both the instability of low-wage employment as well as the difficulties that HOST parents have keeping up with costs as their federal safety net benefits are phased out.

Without a doubt, housing subsidies help a lot of families in important ways. If nothing else, subsidies help them avoid homelessness. But they’re no magic ticket out of the difficulties of poverty, particularly for the working poor.

 

Photo by Tamir Kalifa/AP

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