With the presidential primaries and caucuses in full swing, the candidates are fighting to remain relevant. The hopefuls have honed detailed positions on a wide range of topics. In search of every possible vote, they meet with small groups of citizens in diners, churches and VFW halls. Many candidates have held town hall meetings to talk to intimate groups of local residents about their plans for our country. One candidate held an event in Iowa where a single voter showed up and the candidate spent time explaining why he should be president.
How many of these meetings have been held for residents in public housing developments? I would be surprised if the answer was greater than zero. With as many as 3 million residents living in federal public housing across America and millions more living in state public housing or using Section 8 vouchers, why is it that candidates for almost every statewide or national office ignore so many of their fellow citizens?
Part of the reason for ignoring public housing residents is the fault of public housing residents themselves. Candidates go where the votes are, and public housing residents typically vote at a much lower rate than residents of other communities.
It is also true that most candidates have no idea how to help these citizens.
The typical Democratic response? Add more money to the federal budget and build a few more housing units to help families who have been stuck on public housing waiting lists for years. Democrats ask nothing of the people living in public housing. Today, we have hundreds of thousands of families on public housing waiting lists because so many of the same families remain in public housing for generations.
The typical Republican response? They vote against increased funding and recommend that those receiving public benefits pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The problem is, there is no boot, let alone bootstrap. With little or no education and no work experience, many residents living in public housing can’t find their way back to “Main Street,” not without much guidance and support.
I would argue that there are several reasons that candidates should pay close attention to residents living in public housing:
• Cost. The billions we currently spend on public housing address the symptom (homelessness) and not the problem (lack of education, work experience, guidance to become self-sufficient). Unless we spend money fixing the real problem, American taxpayers will spend more while the problem gets worse.
• Impact on other issues. The relationship between poverty and crime, health care costs and other societal concerns is well documented. Unless we help families rise out of poverty, we can expect those issues to continue and, in some cases, get worse.
• Potential impact on the economy. Every citizen who finds a job helps lift our economy. A citizen who finds a job and ultimately moves off public benefits helps the economy even more. In many communities, the greatest need of the business community is trainable entry-level workers. Residents of public housing can fill those slots while they move up the economic ladder.
• Impact on the residents. Helping a family find an apartment is certainly worthwhile. Helping a family become self-sufficient is so much more. The good people who live in public housing can and should become productive members of the larger community. Helping our fellow citizens find a path to a better life is reward in itself
The current method of offering housing benefits has been a disaster. By almost any measure, the billions we spend do little more than provide a temporary home for families in need. As many as 80 percent of adults living in public housing are not employed full-time. Many families have been unemployed and lived in public housing for generations. Almost half don’t have a high school or general equivalency diploma. Rather than being a temporary helping hand, public housing benefits have become a debilitating crutch.
In Worcester, we believe we have a solution that will help the families living in public housing move toward self-sufficiency and allow us to reach families who have been waiting for years on our waiting lists. Our program, “A Better Life,” requires able-bodied adults living in public housing to go to work or school. We provide participants with intensive case management, a wide range of education and training programs, and help finding a job.
The results of our program have been dramatic. In a short time, we have doubled the number of residents employed and tripled their wages. We have more than tripled the number of residents attending school or a training program.
In an effort to change public policy that impacts residents living in public housing, we have reached out to all of the major presidential candidates in hopes of discussing our model program. Like most public housing residents across the nation, we are still waiting for a response.
• Raymond V. Mariano, former mayor of Worcester, Mass., is the executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority.