Point of View—Poverty is a Choice

Diane Yentel, NLIHC President & CEO

Diane Yentel, NLIHC President & CEO

Last week, a report from the White House Council of Economic Advisors absurdly stated that the country’s war on poverty is “largely over and a success.”  The unfortunate result of that success, according to the report’s authors, is lessened “self-sufficiency” and an increased “dependency” on federal assistance. These statements are as gallingly untrue as Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent assertion that fewer than 250,000 people in the United States live in severe poverty (when twice that number are literally without homes, and many of them without basic shelter, on any given night). Together with Secretary Carson’s past statements that “poverty is, in large part, a state of mind” and “really more of a choice than anything else,” these statements crystalize the administration’s view of the over 11 million extremely low income American households: they just aren’t trying hard enough.

More people live in severe poverty in the United States today than at any time in the last 20 years. Over 30 million Americans have no health care. Twenty-five percent of children in the United States live in poverty, the highest rate in the developed world. One in five children lives without consistent access to food. Three in four of the lowest income families in need of and eligible for housing assistance receives none - they wait years or decades in hopes of winning our country’s housing lottery. Nearly eight million extremely low income renters pay more than half of their income on rent. They are one financial emergency - a broken down car, a missed day of work, or a sick child - away from eviction and possible homelessness.

The affordable housing crisis - both a cause and a result of poverty - has reached historic heights. Today just three affordable and available homes exist for every ten of the poorest people. In some communities, homelessness is increasing for the first time in years, and as a result more cities along the West Coast and beyond have declared states of emergency. Tent cities housing hundreds of people, including children, have become more common sights. Last year, a record number of people died on the streets in cities like Los Angeles, Nashville and Baltimore.

Despite all this, the Trump administration uses faulty analysis, cherry-picked data and old stereotypes to propose taking basic assistance for housing, food and health care away from people who cannot meet harsh new work requirements. HUD Secretary Carson has done his part in advancing this harmful ideology by proposing rent hikes and work requirements for the lowest income Americans receiving housing assistance. We must continue to challenge the distortions of truth and faulty logic within these proposals, even as Secretary Carson publicly contradicts himself on whether or not he supports and will work to advance them.

Carson’s claims that raising rents and imposing rigid work requirements will somehow increase “self-sufficiency” are wrong. The vast majority of households receiving housing benefits are elderly, disabled, providing full-time care for another family member, or are working for low wages that are insufficient to cover their housing costs. The problem is not that low income people aren’t working hard enough - the problem is that many jobs do not pay enough for low income people to afford the rent.

This will be an issue for the foreseeable future. Seven out of the ten of jobs projected by the Department of Labor to have the greatest growth over the next decade pay less than is necessary to afford a basic one-bedroom apartment. Work requirements do not create jobs that pay high enough wages or provide sufficiently predictable hours to lift families out of poverty. Instead, such requirements threaten to cut individuals off from the very housing benefits and services that make it possible for them to find and keep jobs.

The administration says housing and other basic-needs assistance programs perpetuate “dependence.” HUD’s own data belie this myth. The typical household receiving HUD rental assistance leaves assisted housing after about six years. Working-age, non-disabled households receive housing assistance for less time; they typically leave housing assistance in less than three years. Seniors tend to stay longer, for about nine years; nonelderly families with children stay for only about four years. Roughly half of all assisted tenants leave within four to six years of first receiving assistance, and more than three quarters leave after about ten years. What dependence, exactly, is the administration looking to correct?

Deep poverty exists in our country, and it is indeed a choice – not by the people experiencing it, but by the political leaders who tolerate or exacerbate it through harmful public policy. We don’t lack the resources or the solutions to end poverty in our country; we lack political will and courage. Spreading stereotypes, dismissing facts and blaming people for being poor are easy and cheap. We need political leaders who are instead willing to skip the platitudes, recognize deep poverty as an economic condition created by low wages, high costs, a shredded social safety net and harmful public policies that exacerbate income inequality, and do the hard work of funding real solutions at the scale necessary. Only then will we be able to call efforts to end poverty a success.


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