Throughout June, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for reducing poverty and increasing opportunity.
I recently sat in the living room of a young mother whose children, two and three years old, had just returned to her after 18 months in foster care. At the time her kids were removed, Sabrina (not her real name) had been overwhelmed. She had spent time in foster care as a child, became a parent while most middle-class kids were in college, and struggled with homelessness. She didn’t have a stable place to live. She didn’t know how to get her life on track.
During the year and a half Sabrina was working on getting her kids back, her child welfare case manager referred her to supportive housing, a program that provides housing subsidies and supportive services to help with stability and parenting. Through that program, Sabrina found an apartment and started doing much better. During our time together, Sabrina asked why isn’t supportive housing available to people in need before things get worse or affect kids' lives?
It’s a good question.
Too many households do not have stable housing
Housing plays a critical role in providing stability to poor families. When families lack it, there are terrible consequences. Research shows that eviction can have enduring effects on families’ ability to obtain basic necessities (e.g., food, clothing, and medicine) and can cause depression among mothers, and a strong body of evidence links inadequate housing and homelessness to child abuse and neglect. Housing instability can lead to frequent school moves, high rates of absenteeism, and low test scores among children. Housing affects almost everything.
Yet, Sabrina’s story is not unique. There are simply are not enough housing subsidies to meet the need. Only one in four households eligible for housing vouchers receive them, and waiting lists in most cities are closed or years long. The private market does not produce enough affordable housing, especially for deeply poor families. As a result, the number of households paying too much for rent is at historic levels. Families facing severe rent burdens are left with little room for other necessities like food or clothing, or worse, they face eviction, moving, and starting over, again and again. Some end up homeless.
Stable housing can strengthen parenting and support early childhood development
For Sabrina, having a home meant becoming a better parent. She no longer had to move from place to place; she wasn’t paying an unsustainable amount toward her rent each month. She could manage her finances. There was less stress in her life. She was still poor, but stable, and for her kids, that stability might mean avoiding lifelong poverty.
Stability in those early years matters. Research on brain science shows that toxic stress in the earliest stages of life (pregnancy through three years old), when a child’s brain is developing, can alter the architecture of the brain, which can lead to lifelong problems, including learning, behavioral, and mental health problems that are difficult to reverse.
Sabrina worried about the trauma of her absence, but she noted that her kids were doing well: her two-year-old could count to an impressively high number, both kids have strong vocabularies, and they were living in a good school district. Instead of worrying about where she was going to live, she was thinking about these things. The things all parents—not just middle-income parents—should have space and time to think about.
Stable housing improves many outcomes
As I’ve written before, housing vouchers increase housing stability, but they also buy a lot more than shelter. Recent research on homeless families who received housing vouchers shows that vouchers decrease economic stress and food insecurity, help keep families together (and keep kids out of the child welfare system), reduce the rates of domestic violence and alcohol dependence, and limit school changes among children.
The importance of housing stability is often overlooked in the poverty debate
Considering these outcomes, policymakers should be buzzing about the potential impacts of increasing housing stability. But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of political will for increasing housing. Although House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recently released antipoverty plan addresses increasing housing choice and work requirements among those with housing vouchers, the plan doesn’t propose increasing access to vouchers. If we care about ending poverty, especially among children, we should start with housing as a way to support parents early, as Sabrina suggests, before they experience the toxic stress that comes from extreme poverty, moving around, and neglect.
Increasing housing benefits could reduce child poverty by 21 percent
How much could increasing housing benefits reduce poverty among children? Urban Institute research shows that increasing access to housing vouchers to a targeted group of about 2.6 million poor, rent-burdened households with children could reduce child poverty by as much as 21 percent (a bigger impact than we see by expanding transitional jobs, child support, the earned income tax credit, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or increasing the minimum wage to $10.10). Housing isn’t a panacea—it will take a lot more to end poverty—but it’s a good place to start, and one that is supported by the evidence.
After finding a stable place to live, attending parenting classes, and working with her case manager, Sabrina is doing well by most measures: she’s working in a construction job, figuring out how to maintain a routine that provides her young kids stability, and finding enough energy to play with them after a long day at work. Life is still hard, but it isn’t falling apart. She can make ends meet. She is thinking about a career after her kids enter school in a few years. She is saving for a washing machine and dryer for her apartment. The latest pictures of her children hang proudly on the wall over the TV.