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off the charts

Housing Vouchers Are a Proven Anti-Poverty Strategy But Need to Do More


Expanding and improving the Housing Choice Voucher program could enhance poor children’s prospects in several ways, CBPP President Robert Greenstein recently told Congress:

We know, for example, that housing vouchers reduce homelessness; a rigorous evaluation involving families with children poor enough to be eligible for welfare assistance found that the availability of housing vouchers reduced the incidence of homelessness among these families by 75 percent.  Numerous studies have also shown that living in stable housing, rather than having to move repeatedly, is linked to better long-term educational and health achievement among poor children.

Housing vouchers can also give families and children access to better opportunities by enabling them to move from high-crime areas with few jobs and failing schools to areas with more job opportunities, better schools, and less crime.

For example, recent research shows that families that had the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move to a less-poor neighborhood were less likely to suffer from extreme obesity and diabetes, and a growing body of evidence indicates that the stress that children can experience from growing up poor, particularly in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, can adversely affect their health, education, and long-term economic prospects. . . .

Findings like these have helped the voucher program generate bipartisan support, according to Greenstein.  But it falls short in two important ways:

First, its reach is quite limited.  Only about one in four low-income families eligible for rental assistance receives it; waiting lists for assistance are at least several years long in most parts of the country.  This problem has only become more acute as gaps between rental charges and what poor families can afford have widened.  More than 8 million low-income households who don’t receive any federal housing assistance paid more than half of their income for rent and utilities in 2011, a 43 percent increase since 2007 [see chart]. . . .

Second, a core feature of the program — that families are supposed to be able to use their vouchers to move to [areas] where there are more jobs, better schools, and/or less crime — hasn’t worked as well as it should.  Families often experience difficulty in trying to use their vouchers to move to significantly less-poor neighborhoods.   Enhancing the potential of housing vouchers to enable families to move to areas with more jobs and/or better schools could increase economic mobility.

There’s consequently a need both to provide vouchers to more families (which entails an increased level of funding for this voucher program) and to institute reforms to better enable the program’s “choice” function to work as Congress intended. . . .

Greenstein detailed several reforms to make the voucher program more effective and efficient.

For more information, see our backgrounder on the voucher program and chart book, “Federal Housing Spending Is Poorly Matched to Need.”