Denied Housing Assistance

Denied Housing Assistance

In the United States it is hard to build political consensus for any measure. Measures aiding the poor are especially difficult to build a strong coalition behind. As a result, many of the measures that our nation adopts in an attempt to help the poor or address issues for those in need have compromises that make them less effective. This means that sometimes our policies don’t actually end up helping the people who most need assistance.
Matthew Desmond writes about this in his book Evicted. Regarding housing assistance, Desmond writes, “often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance – the rent-burdened and evicted – are systematically denied it.”
It is hard to find political support to provide assistance to people we don’t find deserving of assistance. The things that make people deserving of assistance are things like personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, a good sense of moral and social expectations, and self discipline to bring all these qualities together. Unfortunately, for many people living in poverty, especially those who have suffered trauma, some or all of these characteristics may be missing. We judge these characteristics by people’s level of debt and missed payments, by their history of eviction, and whether or not they have been able to maintain a stable job. These proxies help us determine if someone has the characteristics that would make them deserving of aid, but they also completely miss the point.
People who are deserving of aid usually are not the ones in the most dire need of aid. Quite often people who possess all the qualities to be seen as deserving hit hard stretches and need aid, but quite often people fail, they lose support and struggle to maintain the characteristics that would make them deserving, and are left without aid, making it impossible for them to actually improve their lives and become deserving of aid.
Desmond’s book, and the work of others on housing issues, advocates for a housing first policy. We cannot make housing assistance an incentive, it must be the primary foundation. We cannot expect someone to get a job if they don’t have housing. We cannot expect someone to stay off drugs if they don’t have a safe place to live. We cannot expect someone to catch up on debt payments if they don’t have a house and can’t get a foothold in the labor market. Housing, and housing assistance, has to be a priority, not an incentive or reward that is only provided to those seen as the most deserving.
The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

I’ve written in the past about aid provided by charitable organizations in the United States. Aid provided by families comes with many of the same pitfalls as aid provided by charitable organizations. Our country is generally not comfortable with aid provided by a faceless government to everyone who qualifies. Many people in the country prefer that aid be provided by charities and/or religious organizations instead. Implicitly, what people seem to prefer is aid provided in a manner where certain restrictions and strings can be attached.
My two main criticisms of aid provided through religious organizations is that donors are engaging in a divine quid pro quo, giving money in exchange for divine reward. The implicit idea is that charitable aid provided to those in need comes with the expectation that individuals receiving assistance will become more religious and/or more respectful toward those churchgoers who donate money. Those who provide aid through religious and secular organizations are also able to be more selective and excludable than aid provided by government. It is easier to deny people aid for lack of a job, for drug use, for perceived sexual deviance, and other factors when you are a small charity or a church organization with a limited amount of aid available to give.
In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows that these same strings and limitations are also present in aid provided by families, another preferred method for aid and assistance that Americans favor over government aid. In telling the story of a young woman who was evicted while Desmond was researching the book, he writes, “Over the years, she had learned to ask her favorite aunt for help only during true emergencies, and evictions didn’t quality. If Arleen asked too often or for too much, she would hear about it. Merva might give her a lecture or, worse, stop returning her calls.”
Our country shames those who receive aid, and all the strings, expectations, and personal responsibility lectures that accompany familial, charitable, and religious aid contribute to that shame. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature. American’s don’t want a well functioning and efficient government program to deliver aid to any struggling American who needs it. They want a system that shames the poor, wastes their time, and limits aid if they are criminals, drug users, or sexually promiscuous.
The story of Arleen is important. Her landlord assumed she had family to stay with or to hold her over if she was evicted. We assume people can always fall back on family until they get their lives on track. We assume that family will do the tough work of instilling personal responsibility in another, or absorb the societal costs of a dejected family member on behalf of the rest of us. We set up limitations and strings on aid from other sources and make government aid hard to access so that people cannot receive aid unless they are personally responsible. When they are not, we expect their family to take up the responsibility that the needy person lacks. This is a system that deprioritizes aid to those in need in favor of principles and rule following.
Unemployment Statistics Miss Informal Labor

Unemployment Statistics Miss Informal Labor

“Reported high rates of joblessness among black men with little education obscured the fact that many of these men did regularly work, if not in the formal labor market,” writes Matthew Desmond in Evicted. Labor force participation rates are important because they inform national policies and discussions regarding the economy, society, and how we understand ourselves relative to others. What Desmond’s quote shows is that national labor force participation rates don’t capture a full picture of work, and as a result, our policies, discussions, and interpretations of the world of work may be inaccurate.
 
 
Desmond’s focus is on the way that landlords are able to access poor tenants as a form of free – or sometimes low paid – unregulated labor. Poor tenants, especially in the reporting from Desmond poor black men, are available for hire in exchange for breaks on rent or quick cash. Payments are not often up to minimum wage standards and requirements, and the work can range from relatively unimportant fence painting to crucial code compliance updates for landlords’ properties. A tenant may be hired to help paint a hand rail or may be hired to repair a roof, and when their work is under the table, then their safety can be at jeopardy. Nevertheless, as Desmond shows, informal labor is common among unemployed men.
 
 
Our welfare and assistance policies are designed so that able bodied young men must meet certain requirements before they can receive any benefits or aid. Many policies require work, community service, or job search activities before any benefits will kick in. Informal labor doesn’t count in this system, so men cannot be seen as deserving of aid if they only find work in the informal labor sector. Informal labor may help poor men get by, but it doesn’t help them get ahead.
 
 
The fact that many poor men find work within informal labor markets should tell us that these men can function within society and can find productive ways to earn money. It tells us that these men have been shut out by various structures and systems that don’t permit them to work in formal economies. When landlords come around and help get these men to a job then they do work, at least enough to get by. They don’t all do a great job once they are working, as Desmond shows in his book, but with a little help they can get started. I Think this is an important point to consider. Often the arrangements are not fair and  the work is not great, but informal labor does take place, and can tell us a lot about the people whose work is not counted elsewhere and the types of systems that could be built to reach them.

TANF

TANF

“TANF has become welfare for the states rather than aid for families in need,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States we don’t like the idea of giving direct aid to poor people. We want to make sure that people who receive social aid and assistance deserve the help they get, and as a result we have put restrictions, limits, and qualifications on the aid that the government provides to poor people. We also tend to prefer in-kind benefits rather than cash benefits, believing that cash benefits will be wasted and abused, and believing (whether we admit it or not) that we know what is better for poor people than they do. Providing the thing we think poor people need is our preference rather than providing poor people cash to acquire the thing.
This is how TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) came to exist in its current form. TANF is a block grant from the federal government to states. That means that the federal government provides a certain amount of money to the states for them to use in assisting the poor. Obviously, this means there is an incentive for states to put restrictions and limits on the aid they give to families so that they don’t expend all of the money from the grant. Any money not spent on needy families can be redirected to other purposes for which states may need additional funding.
Work requirements, drug screenings, complicated forms, long lines, and life-time limits reduce the total expenditures that states have with their TANF programs. Instead of focusing on what would be the most beneficial for the needy, programs utilizing such restrictions focus on what would be best for the states coffers. This is why the authors describe TANF as welfare for the state instead of aid for families.
Integrating the Poor

Integrating the Poor

In $2.00 A Day, Kathrin Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write the following about working to improve the lives for the poorest people in the Untied States, “the primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of sync with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society.” Shaefer and Edin explain that most Americans think we should be doing more to help the poor, but that they also dislike the idea of giving free aid to the undeserving. Consequently, any programs that are designed to help the poor, the authors argue, should be generous, but should match what Americans believe is moral and fair, otherwise it will leave the poor as an undeserving separate class, and keep them from integrating with society.
This is an important idea to consider. We want to do more to help the poor, and many would argue that we have an obligation to help the poorest among us live dignified lives with a reasonable floor set for their income, healthcare, education, and access to opportunities to advance. At the same time, giving aid and benefits to those who are not seen as deserving, particularly in America where we constantly judge ourselves and others on measures of hard work and moral character, will create problems and schisms within society. The result would be a form of economic segregation, cutting the poorest off from the rest of society, perpetuating and reinforcing the existing problems that we see among the poorest individuals in the nation.
The authors continue, “the ultimate litmus test we endorse for any reform is whether it will serve to integrate the poor – particularly the $2.00-a-day poor – into society. It is not enough to provide material relief to those experiencing extreme deprivation. We need to craft solutions that can knit these hard-pressed citizens back into the fabric of their communities and their nation.”
One of the great failings of our current society is our de facto acceptance of economic segregation in the United States.  For a few decades the poor were stuck in dense and ignored city centers while the middle class fled to suburbs to live out the American Dream and the wealthy locked themselves within gated communities to keep their vast wealth to themselves, away from the prying eyes of everyone else. The poor were cut off from any real or meaningful interaction with the middle and upper classes.  Zoning regulations and the way we developed neighborhoods meant that people in certain areas all had similar incomes. The rich were grouped among the rich, the middle class among the middle class, the poor among the poor, and the poorest of the poor amongst only themselves. Real community connection for each group dissipated, with no group fully comprehending the struggles, fears, and problems of the others.
The poorest of the poor were the ones most hurt by this economic segregation, and it is one of the first things the authors suggest we address to begin to help the poor. Their first suggestion is a jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone can do some sort of work to earn money and be seen as deserving for further aid. In the end, however, I think the authors would agree that we need to find ways to better integrate society and rebuild community organizations and institutions that help bring people together, not keep them separated in their own homes and neighborhoods, where everyone else that they interact with in a meaningful way is like they are. We cannot address the worst poverty in our country if we don’t find a way to overcome economic segregation and to better integrate the poor into society in a meaningful way.
Hating Welfare

Hating Welfare

Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about David Ellwood, a Harvard Professor who studied welfare during the 1980’s and 90’s. Ellwood studied welfare and found that most welfare recipients used the program as temporary assistance, not as permanent support. His findings contrasted with the popular narrative that welfare made people lazy, dependent, and degenerate, leaving them stuck in the system with no possibility of ever escaping. Ellwood had trouble getting traction with the lessons he learned from his studies and as the authors write, “Ellwood came to a critical realization: Americans didn’t hate the poor as much as they hated welfare.”
Welfare represents the opposite of the American Dream. We believe that anyone can improve their situation in life as long as they are willing to work hard enough, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and apply ingenuity and grit in pursuit of their goals. Welfare says that individuals have no chance of improving their situation on their own, and thus require assistance from the government for basic functioning and survival. The American Dream is individualistic, creative, nimble, and innovative. Welfare is slow, bureaucratic, and lazy. It threatens the American Dream, and is hated by those who pursue the American Dream and by those for whom the American Dream has slipped away.
Edin and Shaefer note that at the time that Ellwood was presenting his research, a time when Ronald Reagan was pursuing a war against poverty and welfare, American opinions captured in surveys showed that the percentage of Americans who thought the country was spending too little on help for the poor rose from 63% to 70%. People wanted to do more to support the poor, but they hated the systems and institutions that existed to provide aid.
This reveals a challenging paradox that our country still has not solved. We all want to pursue the American Dream, but we also still want to be generous and good people. Our highly consumeristic and capitalistic culture tells us that we should constantly be pushing for economic success, that having a big house, numerous cars, and nice things is a reward for our hard work, and that these purchases are socially beneficial because they power the economy to keep everyone advancing along the American Dream. At the same time, we still manage to feel compassion for those who fall on hard times, and we want to have a social system, especially one backed by the government, that helps people when in need. However, we hate the system we have developed for that purpose.
We have developed highly individualistic institutions to support our American Dream and our consumer culture.  We strive to live in the best neighborhood possible, economically segregating ourselves from lower socioeconomic status individuals and families. We push ourselves to constantly work harder, maintaining longer work weeks and hours than most other western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries. We spend our time as part of professional organizations more than as part of social missions. Nevertheless, we still want to help the poor who we run away from. We still want government (someone else) to solve the problems of people who fail in our capitalistic society. We want to be generous, but we only invest in the institutions which have furthered our own individualistic paths toward the American Dream, leaving others behind. We don’t have the institutions which would truly help those in need, and we chide the welfare institutions that do help them. This is the paradox we face, and the only way to get out is to find new institutions that allow us to continue to work toward a version of the American Dream while simultaneously being more socially active.
Compelling Narratives

Compelling Narratives

“Although there is little evidence to support such a claim, welfare is widely believed to engender dependency,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in $2.00 A Day. People hate welfare and distrust welfare recipients. Part of the reason why is because compelling narratives have been developed and routinely deployed to argue that welfare creates dependence, that it weakens the person receiving aid, and creates a cycle where those who are poor lose skills and work ethic, becoming more dependent on a system of support.
“Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” write the authors. Rather than viewing welfare as a system that ensures everyone is able to meet their basic needs or as a system that provides a stable foundation for everyone to live a healthy life, welfare is viewed as a system that ruins the lives of those who receive it by draining their motivation to anything productive with their life. In the United States, a country founded on Protestant ideals where hard work is rewarded with divine riches, the idea of welfare runs against the concepts that have fueled capitalism and our independent spirit.
But the narratives around welfare are often little more than narratives. When it comes to government aid and social support, people are more interested in stories than statistics. A single anecdote about a greedy individual is more powerful than research on economic mobility, the long history of racism in the United States, or randomized controlled trials and natural experiments which show the benefits of social support systems. Research shows that economic mobility is not as simple as hard work and pulling oneself up by bootstraps. The long history of racism in America shows how black ghettos were the result of deliberate racist policies designed to hinder the economic and social advancement of black people. And natural experiments from Oregon regarding Medicaid lotteries show that individuals who receive Medicaid experience less stress and are more willing to engage economically when they are not worried about providing for their healthcare. “Sometimes evidence, however,” write Edin and Shaefer, “doesn’t stand a chance against a compelling narrative.”
When it comes to social support, we want to feel as though we are generous and we want to use charity to signal our wealth and success. Welfare provided through the government does not help us achieve these ends. Additionally, in our own narratives we like to tell ourselves that we are hard working, that we overcame obstacles, and that we are making worthwhile sacrifices for the good our families and communities. Providing welfare through the government to anyone who is below an economic threshold accepts that failure is not due to personal work ethic, challenging the idea that our success is purely a result of how hard we work. It acknowledges that racism has played into the economic outcomes (positive and negative) that we see today, it acknowledges that having a stable footing helps people get ahead, diminishing our personal narratives of overcoming obstacles. The narratives around our own success and the failures of others drive our views and opinions of welfare much more than the evidence of how welfare actually works and impacts the lives of those around us. This is true for the every day citizen on the street and many of the presidents and political leaders throughout our country’s history. These narratives also prevent us today from truly moving forward in a way that supports those who are the poorest among us.
Seneca on the Deserving Poor

Seneca on the Deserving Poor

I really enjoyed studying public policy at the University of Nevada, especially when I had a chance to dive into Social Construction Framework as a way to understand the legislative process. Social Construction Framework (SCF) posits that the way we think about the targets of a policy, that is the characteristics and traits that we ascribe to the population who will be rewarded or punished by a policy, determines how we structure the policy and how likely the policy is to be passed by a legislature. The world is too complex for us to have nuanced, detailed, and accurate understandings of everyone and everything, and so we make shortcuts. These heuristics help us understand the decisions we have to make, and we bring them into the political arena with stereotypes and simplifications of people and social processes. The final policy that we enact is not an objective and scientific product of rational thought about the complex nature of humanity and the universe, but is instead based on these heuristics and social constructions.

 

It is in this framework that I have recently been thinking more about the deserving poor. I have recently done a bit of reading into homelessness, and there is a tension in America in terms of the social constructions attached to homelessness. The homeless can be seen as deserving of aid because (now two) economic downturns have wrecked their financial opportunities or because they faced parental abandonment or abuse growing up, and never got off to a good start. Alternatively, we can see the poor as undeserving, because we think they may be lazy, may be drug users, and might just make poor decisions and they need to pay the consequences. These two ways of conceptualizing the homeless play into the SCF and determine whether we pass policies that help them or punish them.

 

SCF is relatively new and isn’t something that is discussed by the broad public very often. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t think in ways that are described by SCF, and it doesn’t mean that these ways of thinking are new to Americans in the 21st century. Seneca, in his book Letters From a Stoic wrote, “My situation … is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: everyone forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.”

 

What Seneca describes is the way that we see poor people who face economic hardship through unlucky situations as being deserving of aid. As opposed to those who lose a fortune gambling, making bad investments with grifters, or appear to be poor due to personal flaws like laziness, those who lose their fortune due to an unpredictable cancer diagnosis, the tragic loss of a loved one, or a sudden natural disaster are viewed as less blameworthy. They are somehow deserving of sympathy and aid, but often times, these individuals are politically weak. Children don’t have much ability to shape public policy because they can’t vote, but they are a sympathetic constituency. The same may go for the elderly poor, widowed wives of military veterans, or people with disabilities. They are socially praised, or at least not blamed for their dire situations as Seneca noted, but that doesn’t mean they are likely to get a lot of help.

 

Because these groups are well liked, we don’t actively make things more difficult for them, the way we would for people convicted of violent crime or for drug users. But because they don’t contribute a lot to society (in the views of most people) and because they don’t have a lot of political power, they often receive positive rhetoric from elected officials and members of the public in general, but they don’t often receive much aid. This was true when Seneca was writing his letters which became a book, and it is still true today. Viewing people as deserving or undeserving goes back a long way, and we should work to be consciously aware of how we think about groups, and what policy we put forward based on how we understand a group’s level of deservingness.
Help Them Build a Better Life

Help Them Build a Better Life

It is an unavoidable reality that we are more motivated by what is in our immediate self-interest than we would like to admit. This idea is at the heart of Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain and can be seen everywhere if you open your eyes to recognize it. I’m currently doing a dive into reading about homelessness, and I’m working through Elliot Liebow’s book Tell Them Who I am. Liebow writes about American society’s belief that people will become dependent on aid if it is offered unconditionally. In a passage from his book where he reflects on the barriers that homeless women face in obtaining services and aid, and how those barriers can often become abuse, Liebow writes:

 

“One important source of abuse lies much deeper, in a widespread theory about human behavior that gets expressed in various forms: as public policy, as a theoretical statement about rehabilitation, or simply as common sense. Whatever the form, it boils down to something like this: We mustn’t make things too easy for them (mental patients in state hospitals, welfare clients, homeless people, the dependent poor generally). That just encourages their dependency”

 

What is incredible with the sentiment in the paragraph above is how well it seems to justify what is in the immediate self-interest of the people with the resources to help those in need. It excuses inaction, it justifies the withholding of aid, and it places people with material resources on a moral high ground over those who need help. Helping others, the idea posits, actually hurts them. If I give up some of my hard earned money to help another person, I don’t just lose money, that person loses motivation and loses part of their humanity as they become dependent on the state. They ultimately drag us all down if I give them unconditional financial aid. What is in my best interest (not sharing my money) just also happens to be the economic, moral, and personal best thing to do for another person in less fortunate circumstances.

 

This idea assumes that people have only one singular motivation for ever working, making money to have nice things. It ignores ideas of feeling respected and valued by others. It ignores the human desire to be engaged in meaningful pursuits. And it denies our needs as humans for love, recognition, and basic necessities before we can pull ourselves up by our boot straps.

 

Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream is an excellent example of how wrong this mindset is and of the horrors that people can face when the rest of society thinks this way and won’t offer them sufficient help to reach a better place in life. Regarding drug addicts and addiction, Hari quotes the ideas of a Portugese official, “addiction is an expression of despair, and the best way to deal with despair is to offer a better life, where the addict doesn’t feel the need to anesthetize herself anymore. Giving rewards, rather than making threats, is the path out. Congratulate them. Give them options. Help them build a life.”

 

Helping someone build a life requires a financial investment in the other person, a time and attention investment, and also requires that we recognize that we have a responsibility to others, and that we might even be part of the problem by not engaging with those in need. It is in our selfish interest to blame others for the plight of society or the failures of other people. From that standpoint punishment and outcasting is justified, but as Hari, Liebow, and the Portugese official suggest, real relationships and getting beyond fears of dependency are necessary if we are truly to help people reach better places and get beyond the evils we want to see eliminated from the world. We can’t go out of our way to find all the ways in which things that are in our self-interest are good for the rest of the world. We have to acknowledge the damages that our self-interests can cause, and find ways to be responsible to the whole, and help other people build their lives in meaningful ways.

The Achievement is Not Really Yours

The great thing about an individualistic culture is that you get to own your success and feel great about your achievements. You can feel pride in winning a race, skiing down a mountain, having the best Christmas lights, or getting a promotion. Individualistic cultures treat these achievements as something more than just activities and outcomes. They become reflections of you and who you are, and in many ways your achievements become part of your identify. We show our friends our achievements on Facebook, we hang our achievements behind us on our office walls for everyone to see when they look at us, and we celebrate achievements with shiny objects that sit around on shelves and desktops.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to take a deeper look at our achievements than we typically do in an individualistic culture. He encourages us to look deeply at the successes in our lives and to ask how we contributed to the success, how other people had a hand in our success, and the role that luck played in our achievements. When we truly reflect on our achievements, we can begin to see that what we my think of as our own achievement was really a convergence of our own hard work and effort with many other factors that we had no control over. The outcome that we call an achievement is often less of something that we directly influence and more of something connected to the larger groups and societies to which we belong.

 

In detail, he writes, ” Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and the arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success.”  In my own life, I look back at my achievements and I never have a problem remembering the hard work that I put in to achieve my goals. It is easy to remember the studying and reading I put forward to graduate from college. It is easy for me to think about how much I did to earn my grades, but if I am being honest with myself, I can also see how often I was not serious about my studies and how often I was able to benefit from a nice curve on a test.

 

Hanh continues, “Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach.” I received substantial financial support from an uncle during college, and as a result I did not have to work full time and was able to enjoy leisure time. I was able to focus on my studies and had time to be in the library because I did not have to work 40+ hours a week to support myself and complete college. My success academically is directly tied to the support I received from my uncle. I can think about completing my college degree as my own success and as a display of my own virtue, but I relied heavily on assistance from a family member, assistance I can take no credit in receiving.

 

What is important to remember, and what Hanh highlights, is that in an individualistic culture we are often too willing to give ourselves credit for our successes and to view our achievements as entirely our own. When we do this, we artificially inflate ourselves to levels that we do not honestly deserve. It is important that we acknowledge the assistance provided to us from a fortunate birth, our family, random strangers, great teachers, and sometimes from just being in the right place at the right time. Letting go of our achievement as badges of our identities reduces our arrogance and makes us more open to helping others and connecting with those who have not had the same fortune as ourselves.