“Critics of public housing in the United States often argue that the program discourages non-employed residents from looking for work,” said Atticus Jaramillo, research associate for the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS). “Yet little research has actually explored how public housing residents make decisions about whether to look for work.”
In an article published in Housing Policy Debate, Jaramillo and co-authors William Rohe and Michael Webb explore what factors distinguish non-employed public housing residents who are in the labor force (actively looking for work) from those who are out of the labor force (not actively looking for work).
“We worked with a sample of non-elderly, non-disabled public housing residents from Charlotte, North Carolina and found that non-employed residents who were older and showed signs of depression were more likely to be out of the labor force.” In contrast, Jaramillo continued, “residents who were younger, had previously completed jobs training, or had some college education were more likely to be in the labor force.”
The authors’ findings suggest that health, education and life-course stage may play an important role in determining non-employed residents’ decision to look for work.
“In recent years, there has been growing support for proposals to implement work requirement policies and rent payment standards that would pressure public housing residents to increase their employment and earnings,” Jaramillo explained. These efforts are largely based upon the idea that the public housing program should encourage financial self-sufficiency and reduce “dependence” to maximize the individual and collective benefits of the program. “As many policy experts have argued, however, it is misguided to narrowly view labor-market outcomes of public housing residents as the only indicators of programmatic success.”
For example, public housing has long prioritized admissions for low-income families that typically have low education levels and limited job skills, and that are single-parent households. For many of these households, employment and financial self-sufficiency may be very difficult goals; thus, punitive policies that aim to increase employment in public housing pose unique threats to some residents in the form of eviction or unaffordable rent increases.
“Many non-elderly and non-disabled public housing residents face significant structural barriers to employment, such as a lack of nearby job opportunities and inadequate public transit access,” noted Webb. “These residents may struggle to find a job, and past research has found that people who face such structural barriers to employment often become discouraged and stop looking for work.”
Although these findings suggest that a variety of valid reasons may explain why some non-employed, but work-able, public housing residents do not actively search for work, little research has directly examined this topic. The authors addressed that gap in the research, finding that age, mental health, education and jobs training were significant predictors of labor-force participation among non-employed public housing residents. These results highlight that non-employed residents are not a homogeneous group, and that differences among this subpopulation may systematically influence whether they choose to look for work.
“From a policy perspective, this suggests that ongoing policy efforts to increase employment should be responsive to the variable needs of residents who are unemployed versus out of the labor force, as doing so may maximize successes,” said Rohe.
Equally important, the results of this study support the narrative that work-able public housing residents face a variety of barriers and individual challenges to employment that may discourage them from looking for work, providing reason to question the accuracy and usefulness of the belief that some work-able public housing residents are not interested in working and are taking advantage of the program.
Atticus Jaramillo is a doctoral candidate in the department of city and regional planning at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a research associate at CURS. His research interests include low income housing policy, neighborhood disadvantage and policy evaluation methods.
William M. Rohe is the former director of CURS and a research professor in the department of city and regional planning at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Michael D. Webb is the research director of CURS.