LWV: We Cannot Have Too Much Subsidized Housing: Part 2

Ever had a season of life that you thought might break you? Chances are you were living through multiple life stressors, any of which strain a person but when piled up can max out emotional and physical resources on households.

“For families in poverty, one thing can catapult a loss of everything,” family services director MJ Korpela told NBC in 2021. Korpela was working with the Jeremiah Program, which tackles inter-generational poverty, and she noted that her clients fared better than most low-income households after the pandemic because they had more social support.

Whereas middle-class families might face one to five in the course of a year, for families in poverty one stressor instigates a spiral where they may face three or more stressors in a single week. Without a large support network, they remain in poverty longer and face more obstacles to move into the middle class.

What are some of the life stressors that catapult people into crises? Two psychologists, Holmes and Raye, compiled 43 of these into their Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS). Below are some of them (combined) to give you a sense of the list.

  • Divorce or marital separation from spouse
  • Detention in jail or other institution
  • Death of a close family member, spouse or friend
  • Personal injury or illness
  • Being fired
  • Getting married or reconciling with your mate
  • Pregnancy
  • Major change in finances, including unexpected expenses
  • Major change in work – new job, promotion, demotion, new line of work, retirement
  • Child leaving home or taking in a family member
  • Increase in interpersonal conflict with close family members

Created in 1967, the SRRS doesn’t include the pandemic, which sapped the entire world, even as these stressors continued in people’s lives. Three years after the onset of the pandemic, both programs and people’s social networks have been drained, while payouts like the child tax credit and, this month, student loan payments resume. As these fade, our community may continue to see an uptick in requests for money, food and clothing donations because babies keep being born, people marry, get sick, divorce, get jobs, lose jobs.

Most middle-class households may realize how a pregnancy or marital reconciliation strains a household, though they can imagine the impending disaster of an expensive car repair, divorce or job loss.

If you have someone to turn to while you adjust to an unexpected pregnancy, if you can get a small loan or free short-term childcare from a friend or family when something like a broke down car snarls your transportation, it can be hard to imagine that others don’t feel free to ask their own networks. If your job lets you flex hours or work from home when you have sick kids, it’s easy to forget the strict demands of a factory or service job, where points are taken for lateness or too many days off.

The stark difference between the haves and have-less often comes down to the amount and kind of aid different economic classes can access.

That aid comes from the peripheral services about which Mayor Todd Barton spoke in a recent interview with the League of Women Voters while talking about the “problem” of too much subsidized housing.

“I’m in two different worlds. Literally, every day I have meetings with employers who are saying, ‘Look. We need workers. We’ve got 100 openings, or we’ve got 50 openings. What can we do to take people who are not able to work and transition them, give them the skills or upskill them or whatever we need to do to transition them [into work]?’ ” Barton said. “I have that world, then I have what I consider very high numbers of vouchers or subsidized housing. How do you reconcile those two things?”

What frustrates him is a seeing connection between job openings and housing subsidies and no solution.

He’s lived here 40 years and says he’s witnessed a generational cycle of poverty. “My focus now is, if this is generational, how do we really focus at school age to equip young people to be successful so they don’t get caught in the same cycle, or trapped in the cycle? How do we empower them so that they can break free of the cycle of poverty?”

Data and studies bear out what Barton hopes will work: helping young people in order to break the cycle. Just after WWII the U.S. experienced a two-decade economic boom, yet the U.S. maintained a stubbornly high amount of poverty, particularly child poverty, compared to other developed nations It continues to the present, according to BYU’s 2022 Ballard Brief.

But here’s where solutions come in. The American Economic Review found that “even a $1,000 raise in a household’s annual income could result in a 6 percent increase in math and reading scores.” A study published in Educational Leadership found that “most low-income households cannot afford to pay for extra educational support for their children. Since this early childhood education intervention is largely unattainable for those in poverty, a gap in literacy levels and test scores begins to be observable in kindergarten for many students.”

One thousand dollars more in a low-income household makes a difference and it didn’t specify what that money must be used for. It may go toward affordable childcare, early childhood education, or tutoring, It may also alleviate other deficits – food, utilities, housing, healthcare, clothing and personal hygiene, all of which are necessary for dignity and wellness, which a child needs along with a low-stress home, in order to optimize learning. Anything that alleviates emotional or physical deficits is powerful in elevating people out of poverty.

When poverty is intergenerational, as it is for nearly 11 percent of Americans, according to the Ballard Brief, and when children grow up in poverty, as 38 percent of American children do, parents and communities pass down unwritten social rules. One such rule is how often or how much a financially strained person can ask for help. The higher up the economic ladder a person is, the less tolerant they are of repeated requests for help.

The longer a person lives in their social class, the more its class-level social-emotional component defines how a person acts, as Ruby K. Payne discusses in Bridges Out of Poverty. Each class follows its own etiquette around capital such as money and influence. In Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes that low-income individuals may have middle-class family, but they know not to ask for money or aid too many times. They’ll be seen as taking advantage or not being self-sufficient enough.

Unable to lean on networks, people solve their problems creatively – side hustles, gig work, multiple part-time jobs, or spreading their requests for help around, so as not to ask too much of any one person. Like everyone else, they tend to hold their cards close about how they handle their money, but because it was a gift or aid, others feel entitled to see, even dictate, how to use the aid, which robs them of the dignity, respect and privacy we all expect.

For all the hand-wringing about the complexities of poverty, there are effective solutions, even well-publicized ones, but many people are not receptive to them. Why? We have cultural narratives we repeat until we accept them. One such narrative is that only those who work, the elderly, children and the disabled should get aid. Everyone else needs to try to prove they working and thrifty. This is the age-old “self-sufficiency” or “deserving” poor idea.

A particularly pernicious American narrative that prevents us from investing in effective solutions, which tend to require more universal implementation, is the nanny state idea. Framing government programs as controlling, mismanaged, or socialist usurps the possibility of solving the problem.

Non-profits may model working solutions but almost none have the reach to meet the need. If we are going to elevate another generation of Americans into the middle class, it’ll take a multi-pronged campaign, the likes of which we saw after WWII, when policies to encourage college and home ownership alleviated the financial strains on Americans. Those policies – tax breaks on interest paid for home mortgages and student loans, homestead tax breaks and capital gains tax breaks, among others – continue to this day, and are a kind of “handout” that the middle class still enjoys, as Matthew Desmond documented in Poverty, by America. Unfortunately, a whole generation of U.S. minority populations were denied access to those programs. Redlining and whites-only clauses prevented minorities from buying homes. They lost the ability to pass generational wealth to their children, as did anyone else who didn’t use these supports.

The peripherals that come with subsidized housing – food security, childcare, education from the earliest ages through college, mental and physical healthcare, and job training – must be met before people can climb into the middle class. Each is part of a complex web of components with doable, proven solutions: housing first programs, subsidized childcare, free early childhood education and union-based training programs for skilled work.

We need a top-down vision and a bottom-up commitment to discover and implement what will work in our community. Of course, we’ll have to stop caterwauling about paying taxes, tell our leaders about programs that are working and vote for and work with leaders to put them in place. When we ask “why isn’t the mayor or governor or president doing x?” are we pushing community-wide responsibility onto someone else? What happens when no one is there for us? That’s a bleak force that keeps breaking like waves on some human beings. If we don’t want it for ourselves, we could strengthen our entire community a form of prevention.

-The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.