In these highly polarized times it is risky, among my many “progressive” friends, to credit the opposition with any positive contribution to the general welfare. Yet even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Republicans sometimes, on a “gut” level, tap into something that actually makes sense to a majority of Americans. So, at the risk of being dubbed a “traitor,” by my self righteous and highly intolerant liberal friends (such defects know no party bounds), I’d like to commend HUD Secretary Ben Carson for shining a light on some of the injustices of our low income housing policy.
Last week Carson, addressing the Senate, had the umbrage, which often accompanies those with little political experience, to suggest that public housing and Section 8 vouchers may actually be detrimental to the long term welfare of its beneficiaries. That’s because rents are capped at 30% of the tenants legally reported income. This gives the tenant every incentive to either not work, to preserve their benefit, or to work under the table, and such opportunities are ubiquitous in most cities. Carson suggested that rent might gradually increase to 35% of total income which, by some alchemic math, could actually triple the monthly rent of the lowest earners, from $50 to $150 per month. $50 per month – who gets away with that?!
Turns out only a select minority of Americans, who we might call the “privileged poor,” if such an appellation didn’t sound so profoundly ridiculous. In his 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond points out that only one of six Americans eligible for housing assistance actually receives it. The rest are left to try their luck on the private housing market, where they will pay 50-80% of their income in rent and perpetually be at risk of eviction. Of one of his main characters he writes, “Arleen had given up hope for housing assistance long ago. If she had a housing voucher it would mean the difference between stable poverty and grinding poverty, the difference between planting roots in a community and being batted from one place to another. It would mean she could give most of her check to her children instead of her landlord.”
Should anyone’s life choices be between “stable poverty and grinding poverty?” We should not incentivize people to stay in public housing for life, being ever grateful for their “stable poverty” v. total deprivation. Other poor people need to occupy those units as a means to move “up and out” of their present circumstances. Despite the rising threats of technological change and automation to the global workforce, there is only one legal way to escape poverty: work full time, year round, year after bloody year until you’ve saved enough for retirement. Also, get and stay married. Maintain good relations with a wide circle of family and friends, who can support you in times of trouble. Join a church or community organization; get involved as an active citizen, rather than a self server & seeker. Live like an immigrant (currently under attack but the wealth of our nation), even though your ancestors have been here for centuries. It’s hard math, but it works. I know, because I have violated many of these precepts and have paid dearly for it.
Once you have “worked hard and played by the rules,” as Bill Clinton used to say, the government’s role kicks in. Any business who employs over 20 people should immediately begin to pay their workers $15 per hour minimum; smaller businesses should get a government wage subsidy to bring them to that. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which benefits the working poor, should be dramatically expanded, especially for single, childless workers who are currently screwed in the process. Government can provide guaranteed jobs and training, at a sub minimum wage, for those excluded from the private labor market. Housing subsidies should be expanded so no individual pays more than 50% of their income in rent, leaving them perpetually vulnerable to eviction and indigence. If we truly cared about the common good, rather than our own petty individual advancement, we might actually lobby for and vote on such issues.
PS: When I started this blog a few months ago I invited about 40 friends, at least twice, to follow. About 10 accepted the invitation. I spend a lot of time and effort on these pieces and get precious little response. Comments are few & sparse; “likes” virtually non existent. If you’ve read this far, please make some response. Be assured that if you spent several hours sending me your own original writing (rather than some pithy comment on Facebook) I would do the same. I am getting very discouraged at the lack of response and am thinking of giving this up or seeking an alternate venue. Jesus truly said, “A prophet is without honor in his hometown.”