Study Examines Impacts of Housing Assistance on Poverty and Material Hardships

A new article published in Housing Policy Debate, “Housing Assistance, Poverty, and Material Hardships,” explores the impact of public housing and rental assistance on housing deprivation, income poverty, and other forms of material hardship for low-income households. The author of the article, Julie Cai, finds that households receiving Section 8 vouchers or residing in public housing are significantly less likely to have housing cost burdens, experience housing insecurity, or live in overcrowded conditions compared to similar unassisted households. These households are also less likely to experience poverty, as defined by the supplemental poverty measure (SPM), than otherwise similar households that have not received housing assistance. Similar impacts, however, were not observed for other non-housing material hardships.

To study the impacts of housing assistance, Cai utilized a sample of 1,391 low-income households drawn from the New York City Longitudinal Survey of Wellbeing (NYC-LSW). The NYC-LSW surveys New Yorkers over time about income, family health and well-being, and severe material hardships including food insecurity, precarious housing, inability to pay bills, lack of medical help, and financial insecurity. The NYC-LSW data also enabled Cai to identify when a household in the survey received housing assistance, either through public housing or Section 8 vouchers, or resided in a rent-controlled unit. Households in Cai’s sample were surveyed at baseline and at a one-year follow-up.

Housing assistance directly addressed housing problems and reduced poverty. Approximately 23% of participants reported receiving housing assistance both in the initial survey and in the one-year follow-up. Compared to eligible households that had never received assistance, households that maintained housing assistance at the one-year follow-up were less likely to be housing cost-burdened (61% vs. 46%), overcrowded (15% vs. 6%), housing insecure (11% vs. 4%), and live in poverty as measured by the SPM (42% vs. 27%). After controlling for other factors, current housing assistance recipients were 57% less likely to experience housing cost burden, 54% less likely to experience overcrowding, 65% less likely to be housing insecure, and 61% less likely to live in poverty than eligible households that had never received assistance.

The impacts of housing assistance on other non-housing material hardships were less clear. Compared to eligible households without assistance, households that maintained housing assistance at the one-year follow-up, were less likely to report being unable to pay bills (21% vs. 18%) or unable to afford seeing a doctor (27% vs. 20%), but more likely to report food hardship (19% vs. 28%) or living paycheck to paycheck (25% vs. 34%). After controlling for other factors like age, disability, marital status, education, race and ethnicity, and pre-baseline income, however, there were no statistically significant differences in material hardships between households with housing assistance and households that were eligible but never received it.

Cai argues that housing assistance programs clearly reduce housing challenges and poverty for low-income households, but not other non-housing material hardships like food insecurity. Greater housing assistance or assistance with non-housing expenses could help alleviate material hardships experienced by current housing assistance recipients. Finally, the author cautions that her findings may not be generalizable to the nation, because New York City’s exceptionally high cost of living may make it more difficult for low-income households to meet their non-housing needs.

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