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Public Housing and the Value of Work

It doesn't have to be home to an endless, multi-generational cycle of poverty.

Behind the rioting and violence that played out in several American cities last year lies a serious problem. By increasing numbers, our poorest families are becoming less educated, less employed and more reliant on government services and support. A system of assistance that was originally designed as a temporary helping hand has become a permanent way of life. Worse, I am convinced that our system of providing public benefits is actually hurting the families that receive them.

For more than a decade, I have seen these problems first-hand in Worcester, Mass., where I oversee the Housing Authority and its 3,000 federal- and state-subsidized residences. Among families in our public housing units, nearly 80 percent of adults are unemployed and more than 40 percent of residents between ages 18 and 24 do not have a high-school or a general-equivalency diploma. More than half of the adults don't even have a driver's license.

In my experience, children living in our units are more likely to know someone who has been arrested or sent to prison than someone who has held a full-time job for an extended period. We have families who have lived on public assistance for five generations. Only in public housing would such scandalous statistics be acceptable.

So we set out to change the system. Three years ago, the Worcester Housing Authority launched "A Better Life," a program that requires our residents to work or attend school in return for their housing benefit. The program, supported by funding from the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, aims to promote self-sufficiency and help break the cycle of multi-generational poverty and reliance on public housing while opening up opportunities for others waiting for and in need of public housing.

Just as we believe in the virtues of public housing as a temporary expedient, we believe in our residents' abilities to gain true independence. Working with our partners, we start with a series of comprehensive assessments of all members of the family to determine their education level, job readiness, health, finances and personal challenges. Our program invests in intensive case management. We offer residents education, training, counseling, help finding a job and escrow accounts for savings.

The results have been dramatic, as a recent Boston University study documented. Among participants, we have more than doubled the number of residents working - from 35 percent to 75 percent -- while nearly tripling their incomes and quadrupling the number of residents attending school or training programs. Credit scores have risen. Some of our residents have saved thousands of dollars. They are, by any measure, on the road to a better life.

Unfortunately, most residents will not seek out the help we offer. Initially, in Phase 1, we marketed a voluntary version of our program to approximately 1,200 families, yet we struggled to find 30 willing to do the hard work necessary to participate. Next, in Phase 2, we offered an "admissions preference," placing any applicant who agreed to participate in the program at the top of the waiting listing for public housing. This too generated minimal interest. From the hundreds given this opportunity, many of whom had been on our waiting list for years, fewer than 7 percent were willing to sign up for the preference - with some even opting to remain homeless rather than commit to the eligibility requirements.

As we learned, the only way a program like this will work is if the government requires families to participate. In addition to the admissions preference, we recently launched an enhanced version of A Better Life -- phase 3 -- which requires all existing able-bodied residents in our 393 state-subsidized housing units to go to work or to school. The elderly and the disabled are exempt. (Our program does not apply to our federally subsidized units, as we were unable to secure approval from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development because of that agency's view of our requirements.) Failure to meet the requirements can result in lease enforcement, up to and including eviction.

We would rather not go down that road. In fact, through our program we will do everything we can to help our residents meet the requirements and, most importantly, lift themselves out of poverty. As long as a resident is making a sincere effort, they will retain their housing benefit. Yes, it is hard, and in many cases the odds are stacked against those residents willing to do the difficult work required to become self-sufficient. But it should not be acceptable for people to say that they won't even try. The current system not only lets them sit on the sidelines, it encourages it.

On any given day, the media report on public housing or other benefits for those in need. Invariably, the narrative includes how much is spent and how much more could be achieved if only the elected officials and taxpayers would open their hearts and wallets. That's an old answer, and the wrong one. For half a century we've debated how much to spend. If money were the answer, we would long ago have solved our social ills.

Recipients of public assistance need to work hard to help lift themselves out of the poverty that has faced their families for generations. At the same time, these recipients need to be aided by equally hardworking case managers who will guide recipients along a path which, for them, has been wholly unchartered.

Rather than the failed system we have had in place for decades, I invite anyone to come to Worcester and see a model that is actually helping the people it serves. The results speak for themselves.

Executive director of the Worcester, Mass., Housing Authority
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