Our social safety net was meant to be a springboard, but has become a sticky spider’s web.
Thanks to the lack of (political) will to impose requirements designed to move aid recipients towards independence, they are incentivized to stay on aid programs indefinitely. Section 8, the well-known federal rental subsidy program, affords a glaring example of a lack of accountability that creates a disincentive to work and become self-sufficient – perhaps until now.
A movement is afoot by policymakers on the Right and the Left to reform Section 8 by expanding the Moving to Work project, an experimental program dating back to the mid-1990s which allows housing authorities to set time limits and work requirements among program recipients. Proposals in the Senate, House and from the Administration would expand that number of housing authorities from just 39 now to as many as 300 out of the approximately 3,200 nationwide. Right now, those 39 authorities manage one-tenth of all public-housing units and 13 percent of rental vouchers – not insignificant. And expansion could drive substantial impact in moving individuals and families off the program and on to independence.
Apparently, the problem is that federal public housing aid is generally open-ended compared with its sister program welfare, which has a five-year limit for recipients. Moving to Work gives housing authorities waivers from regulations and discretion to get creative with their strategies to get Americans out on their own.
The average length of stay on Section 8 is currently 9.3 years for public housing and 8.3 years for those with vouchers. No wonder we have thousands of struggling families languishing on waiting lists while those with vouchers have subsidized housing.
Opponents to these reforms such as California’s Rep. Maxine Waters want more time to measure results of this program– as though 19 years isn’t enough.
The Wall Street Journal reports:
“I think Moving to Work is particularly important because we’re not only supporting those in need, but we’re also providing them with the tools to one day rent or buy a home on their own,” said U.S. Rep. John Carney (D., Del.), who filed a bill this month to add as many as 60 housing authorities to the program.
Some advocates for low-income people oppose a broad expansion of the program.
“Let’s figure out if this is working and what the impact [of time limits and other changes] is on residents,” said Linda Couch, senior vice president for policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “One of our key concerns is the instability that the program brings to the families the program serves.”
The movement comes as lawmakers face an increasingly contentious dynamic in federal public housing: Thousands of families linger on waiting lists for a place to live while current recipients often get benefits indefinitely.
In 2013, HUD’s inspector general called for improved oversight and said the department hadn’t established performance indicators that would allow it to measure results of the program across the country.
HUD has since taken multiple steps to enhance oversight of Moving to Work, the Government Accountability Office said last week, while it also called on HUD to strengthen its ability to identify “lessons learned.”
Rep. Maxine Waters of California, the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and an opponent of Moving to Work, cited similar concerns in a letter last week to House and Senate appropriations leaders urging them to reject an expansion.
It’s doubtful that the motivation to halt reforms by Waters and others is really to further study program performance but rather to keep their constituents on this program indefinitely with no requirement to get off.
Reforming our social safety net is fiscally responsible for taxpayers, but more important, the reforms would be empowering and helpful to those who need the help. Americans generally want to work and be able to pay for their living. Sometimes they need help and that is understandable, but when they have no incentive to work or move off of public assistance, we are setting them up for a lifetime on the system and that does no one any good.