The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 30, 2018

Work requirements and housing: What we don’t know could hurt us

January 30, 2018

Earlier this month, the administration granted a waiver to permit work and community engagement requirements for nonelderly adult Medicaid enrollees in Kentucky, a departure from 50 years of Medicaid policy. While many questions remain about the Medicaid work requirement guidance, the administration is also considering expanding work requirements for able-bodied adults who receive housing assistance. But the reality is that most recipients of housing assistance are elderly, disabled, or already working.

In principle, an expansion of work requirements in housing assistance would be worth consideration, provided policies can be designed and implemented to produce positive results without making people worse off and if the number of households affected is large enough to warrant the cost of implementation.

We can estimate the number of households that would be affected by work requirement policies if they were rolled out across all public housing agencies, but there has been no assessment of these policies’ effects on households or of the costs to implement them.

Moving forward with insufficient information about the policies’ structure, implementation, and impact could harm families and result in the inefficient use of public dollars.

What do we know about work requirements in housing?

Very little. Our recent brief is the first piece that compiles information on work requirement policies implemented by a small number of public housing agencies. Policies vary considerably in terms of who is subject to work requirements, what qualifies as work, and what the requirements entail.

Beyond this basic information, there is hardly any research on household outcomes. We don’t know how many people have become employed, increased income enough to reduce or move off assistance, or faced consequences for not meeting the requirements.

Some evidence shows that the jobs people get do not pay enough for them to achieve self-sufficiency and move off housing assistance. There’s also no evidence on which policy approaches work better than others for helping households achieve employment and a living wage.

We have heard from a few public housing agencies that it’s important to offer case management and employment-related supports to help people subject to work requirements get and keep a job and that these support services are expensive. But we don’t know which services are most effective or who benefits the most.

Even if work requirements were implemented with these support services, only 10 to 20 percent of households would be affected if all public housing agencies had such policies. Nationally, an estimated 81 percent of households that receive federal housing assistance would not be affected by a work requirement. These households are elderly or disabled (55 percent) or already working (26 percent).

Among the remaining 19 percent of assisted households, those that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are likely subject to a work requirement already, and other households may be exempt from a requirement because they include a preschool-age child or a disabled family member in need of care.

What’s next?

The number of public housing agencies implementing work requirements may soon grow either because the administration could make such policies a condition for receiving federal assistance or because more housing agencies decide to implement work requirements voluntarily.

The federal government and implementing agencies need evidence on which, if any, current policies have led to positive outcomes and how much effective policies cost to implement. Strong evidence will reduce the likelihood that limited resources will be spent with little to no benefit to families and significant cost to agencies.

Jane Croston, resident and member of the South Portland Housing Authority Board, is photographed in her apartment in one of the housing authority's buildings with her dog, Brady. Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.

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