May 7, 2019

What Do We Still Need to Know about Work Requirements in Public Housing Agencies?

May 7, 2019

Work requirements associated with federal assistance programs have drawn more attention since the administration’s 2018 executive order calling for federal agencies to add or strengthen such policies. Although work requirements for Medicaid recipients have received considerable news coverage, other federal programs have also made or considered changes to existing requirements.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has not required public housing agencies to implement work requirements, but a small number have done so for more than a decade. Despite that fact, there is still little evidence of the outcomes of work requirements in public housing. The Urban Institute is addressing this knowledge gap to inform the debate among policymakers and practitioners regarding work requirement policies.

We recently released a case study on the implementation and outcomes of the Chicago Housing Authority’s work requirement policy. We found that a relatively small portion of residents are subject to the policy and, among those who are, most are compliant. The agency is implementing the policy in a supportive, rather than punitive, manner. And though data show some increase in residents’ employment and incomes, the increases are insufficient to support a household’s ability to leave housing assistance.

This study helps fill gaps in what we know about work requirements in public housing. But we still don’t know nearly enough to determine whether work requirement policies overall are positive, neutral, or negative for residents.

What do we know?

We know that a small number of public housing agencies with the Moving to Work (MTW) designation (which allows agencies to use HUD funds more flexibility to improve their cost effectiveness, support families’ self-sufficiency efforts, and improve families’ housing choices) have work requirement policies in place. Their policies vary in terms of who is subject to them, work-hour requirements, accompanying supportive services available, and stated consequences for noncompliance.

We also know that agencies with work requirement policies are in diverse locations, and locational differences can mean differences in job and income opportunities, transportation costs, and other factors that can affect households’ abilities to earn their way off housing assistance.

What don’t we know?

We don’t know how individual agencies are implementing their policies. Which agencies take a supportive approach, and which take a more enforcement-oriented approach to implementation? Which agencies offer more robust supportive services to help households comply with work requirements? Which agencies are in areas with greater employment possibilities and job opportunities that offer a living wage, benefits, and possibilities for advancement?

We also don’t know what employment and income outcomes or impact look like across MTW agencies. Have more residents become employed since their agency’s requirement went into effect? Have they been able to increase income and, if so, by how much? Is there a relationship between the supportive services offerings and residents’ employment and wage-earnings outcomes or between the strength of an area’s job market and minimum wage rate and residents’ outcomes? What other factors affect any positive changes in employment and income?

What’s next?

HUD is expanding the number of agencies participating in the MTW demonstration by 100 by 2023. One group of the newly designated MTW agencies will be required to implement a work requirement policy, and HUD plans to evaluate the impact of agencies’ requirements on residents. In the meantime, what we learn from agencies’ existing policies could inform future policies and implementation practices. But for now, we just don’t know whether work requirements work.

Photo by UpperCut Images/Getty Images.

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