Shelter Shorts

Housing Crisis Hurts Student Achievement

Affordable housing advocates have long argued that effects of the affordable housing crisis extend well beyond low-income people’s day-to-day struggle to pay rent. Now perhaps the mainstream media is beginning to get the message. Columnist Richard Rothstein reports in The New York Times (1/19/00) that excessive mobility of low-income children due to the dearth of affordable housing plays a significant role in student achievement. Many families double-up with relatives, moving on when stress becomes too great. Others fall behind in rent and are evicted, resettling in other school zones.

Los Angeles’ Hyde Park Elementary School offers a disturbing example. Rothstein says Hyde Park has among the lowest test scores in the nation. Of children enrolled in the fall, only two-thirds typically remain through spring. Only one-third of those enrolled some time in the year were present all year. Only 10 percent of Hyde Park fourth graders test at the national median in reading, and only 5 percent do so in math. “Hyde Park’s test scores include those of many students it has not had the chance to teach,” Rothstein points out.

Such instability is not unique. The General Accounting Office reported in 1994 that 30 percent of children from families earning less than $10,000 a year had attended at least three schools by third grade. As Rothstein notes, these students’ teachers must frequently reorganize classrooms and review old lessons. This loss of continuity also hurts stable students.

Excessive student transience due to housing instability sets the stage for life-long disparities. “Poor families often raid food budgets to pay rent,” Rothstein reports. “Children then suffer nutritionally, compounding cognitive problems.”

Rothstein echoes housing advocates’ call for greater federal spending on affordable housing. While President Clinton’s recent budget proposal would add $690 million a year to Section 8 rent assistance, Rothstein says another $3 billion is needed to cover all working families with children who spend more than 50 percent of income for rent.

“This is not a lot of money compared with school money now intended to improve scores of poor (and often mobile) students,” writes Rothstein. “Title I (federal aid to schools with poor children) now costs nearly $10 billion a year. Most states supplement this with extra compensatory money. This spending might be less needed if poor children had stable residences with some quiet space for homework.” By focusing only on schools, Rothstein concludes, government may waste money trying to fix academic problems it could have prevented at less expense.

As most housing advocates know, it’s elementary.

Incentives Increase Work By Single Mothers

When government policies make it pay for poor, single mothers to work, more of them do so, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper issued in September 1999. This flies in the face of common negative perceptions of low-income people.

While much media attention has focused on welfare cuts and time limits and implementation of workfare, authors Bruce Meyer and Dan Rosenbaum write in “Welfare, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Labor Supply of Single Mothers,” many policy changes prior to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 increased the financial rewards of working. Chief among them has been the earned income tax credit (EITC), a federal credit to low-wage workers.

EITC increases account for about 63 percent of the rise in employment of single mothers between 1984 and 1996, the report finds. In contrast, welfare waivers (time limits, tougher work requirements, termination of cases under certain rules) account for about 15 percent. Changes in Medicaid, training programs, and childcare play a smaller role, though training and childcare’s impact are substantial for the amount spent on them.

The EITC has been one of the most significant poverty alleviation programs of the 1990s. By 1996, the EITC accounted for most of the $2,000 yearly subsidy the average single mother received for working. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reports that the credit helped lift over 4.8 million people – more than half of them children – out of poverty in 1998 alone.

To extend the reach of this widely hailed program to more workers, especially those now making the transition from welfare to work, the CBPP has begun the Earned Income Tax Credit Campaign 2000. The campaign aims to raise general awareness of the program so more workers who qualify for the credit will take it.

For information, contact CBPP, 202-408-1080; http://www.cbpp.org/eic2001/index.html

An abstract of the NBER working paper and downloading information can be found at http://papers.nber.org/papers/W7363.

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