Tickets From Poverty to a Better Future

Tickets From Poverty to a Better Future, Editorial Board, The New York Times, Sept. 12, 2018, available here

It was one of those rare moments of bipartisanship in Washington: Republican and Democratic lawmakers who agree on little seemed to concur, only months ago, that helping poor families escape poor neighborhoods was one path to making poor children’s futures brighter. The House approved — and the Senate is considering — a housing program that will help determine the most effective ways of assisting low-income families move to neighborhoods with better housing, better schools, better jobs and better transportation.

House and Senate negotiators meet in conference on Thursday to start working out differences between the House and Senate funding bills. So far only the House has approved funding for the program, the Housing Voucher Mobility Demonstration Act.

The program would provide about 2,000 additional housing vouchers for families with children who would participate in the demonstration program. At the moment, the Housing Choice Voucher program serves 2.2 million households, subsidizing rents so they typically do not exceed 30 percent of a recipient’s income. The House Appropriations Committee has approved $50 million for the demonstration project, most of which would pay for a variety of services to help families find out about housing in better neighborhoods and to move to those areas.

Young people whose families used vouchers in a federally designed experiment in the 1990s to move from deeply impoverished neighborhoods to communities with more opportunities grew up to be better educated and have higher incomes, according to a 2015 study by three Harvard economists. Relocation drove up the adult earnings of these children in all five cities involved in the study — a finding that held true for whites, blacks and Latinos, as well as for boys and girls. The longer children lived in better neighborhoods, the greater their eventual gains. The Harvard study showed that taxpayers as a whole benefit when poor families with children migrate to such communities, with tax revenues that flow from rising incomes possibly offsetting the cost of vouchers.

But according to a recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only about 14 percent of voucher families with children find homes in wealthier areas, where fewer than 10 percent of the residents are poor.

Hundreds of thousands of children in voucher families are trapped in extremely poor neighborhoods — where 40 percent or more of residents are poor — that are likelier to be stricken by violence, health risks and other problems, the analysis shows.

The House voted almost unanimously in July to create the demonstration act, in order to determine the most effective ways of helping families move to and thrive in healthier neighborhoods.

The legislation would allow public housing agencies to help low-income tenants with security deposits and services, including outreach to private landlords, housing search assistance and financial coaching.

While the $50 million approved by the House is a pittance in the gargantuan federal budget, the program should be just the start of a reform to provide more opportunity for voucher families and keep them from being trapped in desperately poor areas that threaten children and their futures.

As a crucial start, House and Senate negotiators need to include the funding in the conference bill.

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