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Trump Plan to Condition Rental Assistance on Work Will Hurt Families, Not Support Work

February 7, 2018 at 5:15 PM

A draft plan from the Trump Administration leaked last week would let housing agencies and private owners end rental assistance for people who don’t meet new work requirements — putting low-income people, including many who now work, at risk of hardship but likely doing little to help them find and keep jobs or raise their earnings. (The plan would also raise rents for working families and other households, as we’ll discuss in another blog post.)

The leaked plan would let state and local housing agencies that administer Housing Choice Vouchers and Public Housing and private owners of properties with Project-Based Rental Assistance end subsidies for households that include non-elderly adults without disabilities if they don’t work or participate in vocational training or education for a set number of hours, which could be as high as 32 hours a week. Most participants in these programs would struggle to afford housing without assistance. Consequently, those who lose their assistance would face the risk of eviction and even homelessness, causing serious hardship and making it harder for them to find or keep a job.

Many of those harmed would be people who already work. (See chart.) Low-wage jobs often have unpredictable hours, ranging from 40 hours in some weeks to just a fraction of that amount in others. As a result, workers who are doing their best to earn a living could lose rental assistance because their employers don’t give them enough hours to meet the requirement. In addition, workers could struggle to keep up with the paperwork needed to prove they worked a set number of hours each week or see their assistance end due to administrative mix-ups.

Moreover, the Administration’s plan doesn’t propose any measures to help people overcome barriers that make it hard to work the required hours. The Administration did not indicate that it will provide new resources for subsidies to help cover the cost of caring for children or for family members who are ill or have disabilities and, indeed, the plan would eliminate a subsidy for child care costs that’s now part of the rent formula. Recipients with mental or physical health conditions that limit their ability to work — but don’t qualify as fully disabled — could lose their assistance. And people struggling with opioid or other substance use addictions would face the risk of losing assistance even if they’re seeking treatment, especially since agencies and owners wouldn’t have to count time spent in treatment toward the hours requirement.

The Administration presents its plan as an option for local agencies, but those agencies wouldn’t necessarily be free to decide whether to impose work requirements. Once federal law permits work requirements, state legislatures could direct local agencies to impose them even though that would raise agencies’ administrative costs and undercut local initiatives such as campaigns to end homelessness. In addition, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) could pressure agencies by giving those that refrain from imposing work requirements lower performance ratings and less access to certain federal grants.

The evidence on the impact of rental assistance work requirements is limited, but such requirements in other programs have generated little or no long-term increase in earnings and employment and have caused many families — often those with the greatest disadvantages — to lose assistance. Nothing about the Administration’s plan suggests it would produce better outcomes. Two small-scale HUD initiatives (Jobs Plus and the Family Self-Sufficiency program) that support work through service coordination and financial incentives have shown promising results — without the risks that punitive work requirements pose. Policymakers who want to help rental assistance recipients succeed in today’s economy should focus on expanding and strengthening those initiatives and similar efforts.

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