Included in the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is a small $2 million allocation for 10 “EnVision Centers,” a project conceived and spearheaded by Secretary Ben Carson. The centers reflect his perspective that “financial support alone is insufficient to solve the problem of poverty.”
Located on or near public housing developments, the centers are to be hubs where residents can access services intended to boost self-sufficiency among assisted people through four pillars: character and leadership, educational advancement, economic empowerment, and health and wellness.
The following conversation with Urban Institute fellow Susan J. Popkin explores the evidence about what an initiative of this kind needs to help residents improve their economic circumstances. Popkin says that past efforts show that even the strongest interventions are unlikely to help residents achieve enough financial stability to afford housing without assistance or help residents escape poverty.
What do we know about programs like EnVision Centers?
Expectations for programs like this need to be realistic. Based on everything we know about previous and ongoing workforce programs—and we’ve seen many different models—the effects are fairly modest.
The JobsPlus program, for example, began as a big experiment in 1990s. The program saturated housing-assisted communities with workforce support services to support a “culture of work,” and the results showed increased employment and earnings. But even though the effects were statistically significant, they were relatively modest—on average, participants’ earnings increased less than 20 percent. HUD piloted a model to allow housing authorities to test different approaches to increasing earnings and improving employment outcomes in 2014. There are currently 24 JobsPlus grantees.
So the evidence we have shows that public housing residents and Section 8 voucher recipients participating in programs like JobsPlus may earn more but not enough to no longer need housing assistance—or escape poverty. We also need to know more about what happens to people after they leave public housing, if they do.
What do we know about people who leave public housing?
In an earlier study, we found that people who earned their way out of public housing often did so both because they got a better-paying job or because someone else in the household—a partner or adult child—got a job that enabled the family to leave. But after leaving, many of these people experienced trouble affording housing in the private market. Even some who became homeowners struggled because they could not afford to pay for repairs and upkeep. People who left for negative reasons, like being evicted, fared even worse and sometimes became homeless.
If we want to help people move out of public housing, there must be a realistic step for them to take after they leave, along with wraparound support services, or they’re going to end up needing assistance again. And the extremely limited supply of housing assistance relative to need means that their odds of being able to get help again are extremely low. The Chicago Family Case Management Demonstration—a collaboration between the Urban Institute, the Chicago Housing Authority, and local service providers—shows how supporting residents to improved employment and wellness can be done successfully.
If we want to help people move out of public housing, there must be a realistic step for them to take after they leave. -Susan J. Popkin
The demonstration offered participants access to a Transitional Jobs program, where they were paid decent salaries while they received on-the-job training and access to wraparound services. Employers knew that they were helping someone transitioning from public housing and provided tailored support for those people. We found that employment rates increased and were still higher when we went back two years later; however, the residents were still very low income, and none had been able to earn their way out of public housing.
What’s standing in the way of self-sufficiency?
HUD should be wary of implying that people in public housing don’t want to work—they do. When I’ve visited public housing properties and asked residents what they need, they say jobs.
But low-income people also say that they need various supports to be able to work. They need child care, a wage that can support a decent quality of life, a system that doesn’t put a 100 percent tax on benefits like TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], and housing assistance when they start earning more, and reliable and affordable transportation options.
And those who face more complex challenges like physical and mental health problems need wraparound services and long-term support. Our work in Chicago and in other cities has highlighted the need for effective and intensive services that meet residents where they are and support them in overcoming barriers.
Fundamental, systemic problems in our country must also be addressed. The long history of racial segregation means that most public housing is in isolated, economically distressed communities that offer little access to jobs—or to transportation to get to them. The labor market doesn’t provide enough jobs that support a decent quality of life. We also face a severe shortage of affordable housing supply. Nowhere in the country can someone making minimum wage afford a basic two-bedroom apartment. And we don’t have enough housing assistance to serve all of those who need it—only one in five eligible households currently receives any housing assistance.
There’s nothing wrong with the goal of helping people work more: work helps build self-worth and a healthy society. But we should base our efforts in this area on evidence on what works and have realistic expectations about what even the best interventions can achieve.