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Work requirements for housing aid aren’t very effective, finds study

An Urban Institute investigation of a Chicago program found it did little to improve residents’ income

Chicago was the subject of a study on how work requirements for public housing aid did or didn’t help residents.

As part of broader changes to policy around public assistance programs, the Trump Administration has consistently proposed cuts and changes making it more difficult to receive aid.

One of the policy ideas being promoted, work requirements for aid, has been raised as a potential change to the way federal housing aid is dispersed. This is despite the lack of evidence about how such a program impacts the families receiving assistance, or how it impacts local public housing authorities’ administrative functions or budgets.

Diane K. Levy, a principal research associate for the Urban Institute, decided to find out if there was any research on how this type of restriction impacted housing aid. Her new study on the subject, using a Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) program as a test case, shows that implementing this type of shift in benefits programs does little to help recipients find work.

How the Chicago work requirements worked

The CHA implemented a work requirement policy as part of the Moving to Work demonstration project in 2009, a HUD initiative that allowed some local housing authorities to test out new policies. These types of requirements have already been included in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF (federal cash assistance), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).

The CHA work requirement policy mandated that any non-disabled adult ages 18 to 54 in a household was required to work or participate in employment-related activities for 20 hours per week.

Levy’s research, the first to use Chicago’s experience with the program as a data set, found that in 2017 roughly 1 in 6 of the CHA’s 30,000 residents were subject to the work requirement policy. And of those 5,232 subject to the mandate, 54 percent met the requirement; 23 percent were in what’s called “safe harbor” status, meaning they were within a 90-day probationary period to find work; 17 percent qualified for an exemption; and 6 percent didn’t meet the requirement.

“Only a small segment of the population was subject to work requirements,” says Levy. “And of that group, you get down to a very small number of people who aren’t in compliance. There’s a broad public perception that there are a lot of people getting public assistance of various sorts who aren’t doing what they should do, and aren’t making an effort. What we found through our analysis was that if you try and tease out who’s in compliance and who isn’t, the numbers get small pretty quickly.”

Data doesn’t show a big impact

Overall, the CHA hasn’t used the work requirement to force evictions, as many housing advocates and activists feared. But it also hasn’t had the kind of positive impact that backers suggested the “by-your-own-bootstraps” philosophy would generate.

Research found that the annual income of those subject to these work requirements increased over time, from $11,568 in 2010 to $12,712 in 2017. But it’s unclear how much work requirements played a role in that increase. Levy found the work requirement policy didn’t enable residents to increase their incomes enough to move to market-rate housing, nor did it push residents to work who didn’t already want a job.

In fact, through surveys and interviews she found that simply telling residents they needed to work didn’t overcome structural barriers to employment that might be addressed with a different approach. Among these barriers are a lack of access to affordable, reliable child care, as well as a shortage of available work that wasn’t temporary, seasonal, or that otherwise offers minimal job security, and make it difficult to land more steady, well-paying employment.

If such a policy was applied at the federal level, it may have a similar impact, only applying to a small part of the overall population. A 2016 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that only 6 percent of households receiving rental assistance (approximately 261,000 nationally) would be subject to work requirements if the policy were implemented across the country.

Levy says more we need more research to figure out if there is a better way to structure the policy. Focusing on the employment barriers facing residents of public housing, she adds, will likely make more of a difference.