Finish this sentence: “Children who grow up in public housing…”1

Whatever your political leanings, you probably didn’t come up with “do better in life than their peers who didn’t.” But according to a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), it’s true. The authors compared siblings who spent different amounts of time in public housing, and found that the children who spent more time in the projects had higher earnings and a lower chance of being incarcerated. Kids got a similar benefit when their families received vouchers to help them pay the rent at a private apartment.2

The point, of course, is not that public housing is an ideal place to spend a childhood. It’s that the alternatives can be much worse.3

In my city, Nashua, New Hampshire, one of those alternatives is the Country Barn Motel and Campground. It’s an old house and barn that the owners turned into a bunch of individual rooms, plus some trailers on blocks. Everything’s painted a rustic brown, and when I visited—a week before Halloween—it was decorated with fake cobwebs.4

It’s a nice place in a lot of ways. Kids ride bikes around the quiet, wooded grounds, and neighbors volunteer to babysit for each other. But many of the families here are facing the kinds of stress that can have troubling long-term consequences for kids.5

Inside one door, guarded by three carved pumpkins, Crystal and Jimmy live with their baby, 5-year-old son, and 3-year-old daughter in a single room. There are two beds, a TV, a refrigerator, and a stove—only one of the electric burners works—and that’s about it. They’ve been here for about five months. While I talked with the adults, the older kids showed off their gymnastic moves, mostly ignoring a cartoon playing on the TV.6

“We’re trying to save money for a place, but everywhere’s expensive,” Jimmy said.7

Before moving here, the family lived with Jimmy’s stepmom. But, between her five kids and their three, squeezing everyone into a three-bedroom apartment didn’t work for long. Crystal and Jimmy have been on a wait list for public housing for two years, but their number hasn’t come up. Researchers who study housing policy have found that’s not terribly unusual. As of 2012, there were around 6.5 million US households waiting for either a spot in public housing or a housing voucher.8

Crystal and Jimmy do get government help with their rent, but it’s through a city program that’s supposed to be a short-term emergency backstop. They worry that they could lose that assistance any day now. Meanwhile, Jimmy said, living at the motel is tough on the kids.9

“Just putting them to bed, everything’s extra hard,” Jimmy said. “We’re so on top of each other. If one of them’s awake, they’re all awake.”10

The US Department of Education warns that moving around a lot, or living in temporary situations like motels or doubling up with other families, tends to hurt children’s school achievement and emotional development. One recent, randomized study in New York City found that families that don’t get help with housing are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared with those that move to new, subsidized housing. That repeated exposure to acute stress might help explain the long-term effects on kids’ incomes and incarceration rates that the new NBER paper found—the stability matters.11

David Evans lives with his girlfriend and their three kids, including a newborn baby, in one of the trailers at the Country Barn. It’s $225 a week—cheaper than living inside the motel—but it only comes with a hot plate for cooking, and you have to use a shared bathroom in a separate building. Between his paycheck from a warehouse job and his girlfriend’s disability benefit, they can only afford rent, food, and clothes for the kids. An apartment with a monthly rent might be cheaper, but they’d have to save up for the security deposit.12

Things were easier when the family got part of their rent through a federal Section 8 voucher. But then his girlfriend got into a dispute with her family, who had control over her Social Security checks. Ultimately, David and his girlfriend lost access to the checks, which made it impossible to pay their rent. They were evicted—which meant permanently losing their eligibility for the voucher.13

“Telling my kids we have to go live in a trailer, that’ll break you down,” Evans said.14

Evans is a former heroin addict, clean three years. He’s used to working hard at seeing the bright side of things. But he said living in a 200-square foot trailer is hard on the whole family, particularly his 8-year-old stepdaughter.15

“She gets edgy, so she has a little bit of an attitude,” he said.16

In fact, the girl has been lobbying her mother to go live with her biological dad, who has been in and out of jail and recently got back in touch after years out of her life.17

“She’s even like ‘Mommy, it’s just until you get an apartment,’” Evans said. That’s hard on his girlfriend, but he sees where the girl is coming from. “I don’t want to be here either.”18

Unlike a lot of people at the Country Barn, Angela Winslow said she really likes it here. She’s fixed up her room in the motel with country-style knick-knacks and some of her own furniture. But she may not be able to stay long. When she moved in two and a half months ago, she had custody of her 7-year-old grandson—so she was able to get some help from the local welfare office.19

“He’s such a great kid,” she said. “I had him since he was 12 months old.”20

Recently, Winslow’s daughter regained custody of the boy. Winslow doesn’t think that’s a good situation for him—she isn’t crazy about some of her daughter’s life choices—but she’s been happy to at least care for him on the weekends when her daughter drops him off.21

Now, though, since she’s no longer his legal guardian, she’s liable to lose her housing assistance, health insurance, and food stamps. If she can’t stay at the Country Barn, Winslow said she’ll move in with her other daughter. They get along well, but she’ll have to sleep on the couch or a blow-up mattress. That will complicate her weekends with her grandson, and it might not be the best situation for her and her daughter either.22

“She’s a night owl,” she said. “I’m not.”23

The thing is, even if getting help paying for housing would benefit Angela Winslow’s grandson, and David Evan’s three children, and Crystal and Jimmy’s kids—and all the rest of the kids who’ve spent time at the Country Barn—there isn’t enough funding for it. The United States hasn’t built much public housing since the 1990s, and it has demolished some of what it used to have. Housing vouchers aren’t filling the gap, since only one in four households that qualifies for a housing voucher actually gets one. Meanwhile, the federal government spends almost twice as much on mortgage-interest tax deductions, which overwhelmingly go to the wealthy, as it does helping people with rent.24

Winslow said her worries about losing her room, along with everything else that’s happened in her life over the past few months, have gotten her feeling kind of depressed. She’s hoping her case worker returns her call about staying in the hotel soon.25

“If they give me the news they’ll help me, then of course I’ll stay here,” she said.26

Otherwise?27

“I’ll just figure it out.”28