A homeless man in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Nadel)

Sequestration can seem a little vague, abstract, difficult to wrap your head around.

But here’s what it means when it comes to housing: up to 140,000 fewer low-income families receiving housing vouchers, more children exposed to lead paint, higher rent for people who can’t afford it and a rise in homelessness.

These are among the human costs of sequestration noted in a new paper by Doug Rice, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who has worked on housing policy for ten years.

“These kinds of cuts are really unprecedented,” Rice told me. “The Section 8 voucher program has been around for nearly 40 years—it was created during the Nixon Administration and has had strong, bipartisan support for its entire history. Part of that support has consisted of Congress providing adequate money to ensure that the vouchers currently used by families are renewed from year to year.”

But for just the third time in 39 years, Congress will not fund local housing agencies so that they can renew all current vouchers. A $938 million cut in the voucher program translates to a 6 percent shortfall below what is needed to maintain assistance to the same number of families in 2013 as last year.

“Here we are in 2013 looking at severe cuts in the number of families that receive assistance, even at a time when the number of families in need has been rising sharply,” said Rice.

Indeed, as the report notes, there are currently “waiting lists for vouchers in almost every community,” and only 1 in 4 eligible households receives a voucher or some other form of federal rental assistance. Half of the current households in the voucher program include seniors or people with disabilities, and the rest are mostly families with children. The average household income is just $12,500—well below the poverty line of about $18,000 for a family of three. 

Currently, Rice writes, about 1.5 million Americans spend some time in emergency or temporary shelters every year. Since 2007, the number of families with children living in shelters and other emergency housing has increased by approximately 32 percent.

This bleak picture is about to get worse. 

While 140,000 fewer low-income families will receive vouchers by early 2014—increasing the risk of homelessness for many families already deemed at-risk—there will simultaneously be cuts in federal funding that enables communities to assist homeless people. Emergency Solutions Grants (ESGs) are used by local communities for emergency shelters, temporary rental assistance and other services that help families avoid homelessness; these grants face up to a 34 percent cut.

“Communities will be forced to either close down shelters or cut back efforts to prevent homelessness or re-house homeless families,” writes Rice.

At the same time, Continuum of Care (CoC) grants targeting “chronic homelessness” prevention—assisting homeless individuals with mental or physical disabilities who live on the streets for extended periods—will likely be reduced by at least $180 million. (More if HUD decides to reallocate a greater proportion of these funds towards ESGs.)

“There has been a 10-year effort at the federal level to reduce chronic homelessness among individuals with significant mental health or other kinds of disabilities,” said Rice. “It is a lot cheaper to help them afford stable housing with the services they need than to allow them to languish on the streets, which costs the government more money in health care costs, trips to emergency rooms—not to mention jail.”

Some of the effects of sequestration aren’t coming down the pike—they are already here. 

Local agencies are already “shelving” vouchers, which means that they aren’t reissuing them to families on the waiting lists when other families leave the program. Agencies are withdrawing vouchers from families who recently received them but are still searching for an apartment. They are alerting current families that their assistance may be terminated later this year. They are considering raising rents on current tenants (which requires permission from the Department of Housing and Urban Development), charging fees for parking and other services or requiring tenants to pay more for utilities. The report notes that these policies “are likely to steer families into neighborhoods with more crime, lower-performing schools, and less access to jobs.”

Sequestration will also result in housing agencies receiving “only about 70 percent of the administrative funds for which they are eligible this year,” according to the report. That means less ability to perform property inspections and address “potentially serious problems” in apartments.

Due to cuts in other HUD programs, there will be reduced efforts to minimize children’s exposure to lead in older units, and decreased production of new affordable housing for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Further, local agencies will receive only about half of the monies needed to cover new repairs and renovations this year—never mind the $26 billion backlog of capital repairs in public housing developments.

“When agencies don’t receive enough monies to operate and maintain their properties, they delay and forgo maintenance and basic repairs, and these kinds of delays can increase costs in the long-term by causing more costly structural damage,” said Rice.

At best, it means deteriorating living conditions for too many families. At worst, it means more affordable units lost to disrepair. The report notes that more than 260,000 public housing units have been demolished or removed from stock since the mid-1990s. 

Not to be lost in all of this is the effect these policies have on children over the long-term. 

“Children who experience repeated or extended periods of homelessness—especially when they are very young or in teenage years—tend to do much less well at school, [their] graduation rates are lower, and they are more likely to have certain health problems,” said Rice. “They are much less likely to be productive economically if they live in deep poverty as young kids, and part of this is a housing situation. For kids that do well in school, stable housing in a decent, safe home is a pretty important component.”

In a country where 82 percent of voters want Congress and the White House to deliver a plan to cut child poverty in half within 10 years, this is clearly not the direction in which we want to be moving.

“What we should be looking at is reducing homelessness and reducing the number of low-income families who have what HUD calls ‘worst case housing needs’—which are all households with very low incomes, paying housing costs that exceed half of their income, or they live in substandard housing,” said Rice.

Rice has done a real service with this report. The question is the same one that seems to come up again and again when it comes to issues that are important to low-income people—is anyone listening, and does anyone give a damn?


Juicy Couture: Take Care of Your Workers

Stand with the fast food workers of New York City

Allow Advanced Practice Registered Nurses to Help Fill Primary Care Shortage


TODAY at 12:15, livestreamed: “The New (Suburban) Homeless: How Foreclosures and the Great Recession Have Impacted American Families,” New American Foundation. American Prospect senior writer Monica Potts will discuss her new piece, “The Weeklies,” about suburban homelessness outside of Denver. Janis Bowdler, economic policy director of the National Council of La Raza, will participate as well. #TheWeeklies

Tuesday, April 9: NC Women’s Advocacy Day, at the state legislature in Raleigh, with NC Women United (NCWU), a coalition of organizations and individuals working to achieve the full political, social and economic equality of all women. NCWU will bring activists from across the state to urge their legislators to support issues related to the advancement of women and families, including economic self-sufficiency, access to health care, civic participation and ending violence against women. NCWU is particularly interested in maintaining the EITC and work supports for struggling families in North Carolina. Register for Advocacy Day here.

Wednesday, April 10: LIHEAP Action Day, US Congress. Supporters of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program from across the country will meet with members of Congress to urge them to restore funding for the federal energy assistance program. You can register here. If you can’t attend, show your support on April 10 by posting the following message on your Facebook status and in messages to your representatives: “The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helps millions of Americans keep their lights on and their homes livable in winter and summer. Congress, please restore funding for LIHEAP to at least $4.7 billion for FY 2014.” You can also tweet using #LIHEAPAction.

The Sequester and Seniors

Cuts to programs like home-delivered meals, senior housing and energy assistance are starting to impact seniors in need. The National Council on Aging wants to hear what’s happening in your community, and take those accounts to legislators. Share your story here

Clips on Disability

There were many inaccuracies and distortions about federal disability programs in a recent series on NPR, “Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America.” Below are some of the smart responses to it. You can hear more good commentary on the subject tonight at 8 PM on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes. Disability is going to continue to come under attack. I’ll definitely be doing my best to stay on top of this, and I would also recommend that you follow the work of Rebecca Vallas (Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities), Shawn Fremstad (CEPR) and Kathy Ruffing (CBPP).

Disability Insurance: The Problem of Contagion in the Media,” Dean Baker

How ‘This American Life’ Got Disability Wrong,” Michelle Chen 

‘Unfit’ for NPR—Let’s Get the Facts Straight on Disability,” Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities

Supplemental Security and Temporary Assistance: How ‘This American Life’ Got the Story Wrong,” Shawn Fremstad

 “Why the disability insurance system may soon be on disability,” Melissa Harris-Perry [VIDEO]

‘There’s no such thing as a neutral story. But there is such a thing as an honest story’,” Jennifer Kates

The simple, boring reason why disability insurance has exploded,” Brad Plumer

Misleading ‘Trends with Benefits’,” Harold Pollack

The State of Disability,” Kathy Ruffing

Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)

Setting fair wages in fast food,” All In with Chris Hayes [VIDEO]

Paid Sick Leave in San Francisco, Before and After the Fight to Pass It,” Sheila Bapat

House Republican Budget Cuts to Nutrition Assistance Are Bad for the Economy,” Melissa Boteach

Program Helps Students Talk Their Way Out of Trouble,” Patricia Leigh Brown

Sequester Impact: March 27-April 3rd,” Coalition on Human Needs

Fast food workers plan surprise strike,” Josh Eidelson 

Community fights ruin from foreclosures,” Tom Foreman/CNN [VIDEO] 

Media Coverage of Poverty: Quality, Not Just Quantity, Matters,” Shawn Fremstad

Focus, Institute for Research on Poverty

An Early Assessment of Off-Site Replacement Housing, Relocation Planning and Housing Mobility Counseling in HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative,” Martha Galvez

While corporations benefited from bailouts, employees did not,” Melissa Harris-Perry [VIDEO]

Unions call for state to sue banks and recover PERS funds,” Hannah Hoffman

The McJobs Strike Back: Will Fast-Food Workers Ever Get a Living Wage?” Sarah Jaffe 

Re: Investing in Innovation Fund Priorities,” letter to the U.S. Department of Education

Supporting School Success for Children Receiving TANF,” Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Voices of Hunger and Hope: Baltimore Witness to Hunger,” Maryland Hunger Solutions 

Promoting Employment Stability and Advancement Among Low-Income Adults,” MDRC

New conservative state policies are falling hard on women,” Tazra Mitchell

Communities Move the Minimum Wage: Will the Federal Government?” Kathy Mulady

HUD Enforcement of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Requirement,” Poverty & Race Research Action Council 

Grassroots Corner interview with Jessica Bartholow,” Ernie Powell [AUDIO]

Historic fast food strike draws lessons from MLK’s last campaign,” Ned Resnikoff

Carry On, Wayward Sons,” John Schmitt 

Penalties will hurt students, families,” Joe Soss

Minimum Wage: Not Just for the Poor,” Robin Templeton

Just Say No to Just Read, Florida, South Carolina,” P.L. Thomas

A Long Way From Home: Housing, Asset Policy and the Racial Wealth Divide,” United for a Fair Economy

Lack of paid sick leave is unhealthy for America,” Katrina vanden Heuvel

Studies/Briefs (summaries written by James Cersonsky)

A Real Fix: A Gun-Free to School Safety,” Advancement Project. Not only does increased police presence in schools have a consistent track record of making students less safe, it also draws resources from more holistic approaches that have been shown to benefit students—especially low-income students of color. This brief proposes the creation of school safety plans by teams comprising a range of school stakeholders, including parents and students. The plans should focus on three components: crisis prevention—through restorative justice practices, conflict resolution programs, mental health resources and school-family communication; school security measures involving all members of the school community; and school crisis plans in preparation for emergency.

Scarring Effects: Demographics of the Long-Term Unemployed and the Danger of Ignoring the Jobs Deficit,” National Employment Law Project. The US labor force counts 27 million unemployed or underemployed workers, and 40 percent of jobless workers have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer. This report exposes the demographics of the crisis. Those suffering the greatest are the oldest: more than half of unemployed workers at least 45 years old have been out for longer than 27 weeks. Public sector cuts have come down particularly hard on women and people of color. Black workers, for example, account for twenty percent of state and local job losses; Latino youth account for 30 percent of enrollment in federal job training programs, which have also been hit heavily. For workers across the board, the recovery has been a regressive one: low-wage job growth has been 2.8 times greater than mid- and high-wage job growth.

Hard Choices: Navigating the Economic Shock of Unemployment,” The Pew Charitable Trusts. Drawing on a mix of quantitative and qualitative data, this report breaks down the influence of unemployment on short-term economic stability—and long-term mobility and wealth. Families that experienced unemployment between 1999 and 2009 were 1.3 times more likely to lose wealth during that decade than other families (even when controlling for a variety of factors). When hit with unemployment, families tap into a variety of resources—first, assets like personal savings and home equity. But if those resources are lacking, they use monies saved for their children’s education, high-interest loans, even their own retirement funds. The report proposes a slate of remedies, including low-cost loan options for families in times of need, stronger unemployment insurance and revised tax-incentive structures to encourage emergency saving.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children. Poorest age group in country.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Low-income families that were working in 2011: More than 70 percent.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Percentage of entitlement benefits going to elderly, disabled, or working households: over 90 percent.

Food stamp recipients with no other cash income: 6.5 million people.

Children living on streets or in homeless shelters, US: 1.6 million, 42 percent under age six.

Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.

Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.

Quote of the Week

“Over the past few decades, politicians have made an art form out of pledging to get tough with welfare recipients. These days, hardly a week goes by without a new call to impose ‘real consequences’ on aid recipients if they don’t shape up, accept personal responsibility and change their behavior. But here’s what you should know: Social policies that focus on penalties inflict real hardships on poor families but rarely produce the promised results.”
—Joe Soss, on Tennessee bill which would cut low-income parents’ cash assistance if their children falter in school.

James Cersonsky wrote the “Studies/Briefs” and co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” sections in this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again on Sundays at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.