Those of us who don’t live in trailer parks or inner cities might think low-income families typically benefit from public housing or some other kind of government assistance. But the opposite is true. Three-quarters of families who qualify for housing assistance don’t get it because there simply isn’t enough to go around. This arrangement would be unthinkable with other social services that cover basic needs. What if food stamps only covered one in four families?
A universal housing voucher program would fundamentally change the face of poverty in the United States. Evictions would plummet, and so would the other social problems they cause, like family and community instability, homelessness, job loss and depression. Suicides attributed to evictions and foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010. A universal housing voucher program would help reverse this disturbing trend.
Exploitation is not confined to the housing sector alone. It thrives when it comes to other essentials, like food. Inner-city bodegas take advantage of families’ lack of transportation to increase grocery prices, effectively reducing the value of food stamps. The payday lending industry exploits poor people’s lack of access to credit by offering high-interest loans and collecting over $7 billion a year in fees.
This solution is not as expensive as we might think. If we did nothing to make the voucher program more cost-effective — and there is much we could do on this score — expanding housing vouchers to all renting families below the 30th percentile in median income for their area would likely require an additional $22.5 billion a year. The actual figure is likely to be somewhat less, as this estimate does not account for potential savings in the form of reducing homelessness, lowering health care costs and curbing other costly consequences of the affordable-housing crisis.
We have the money. We’ve just made choices about how to spend it. In 2008, the year Larraine was evicted, federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled more than $40 billion, but homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion, a figure equivalent to the budgets for the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture combined.
If we are going to spend the bulk of our public dollars on the affluent — at least when it comes to housing — we should own up to that decision and stop repeating the canard about this rich country being unable to afford more. If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.