It’s 6 a.m. on Christmas morning in Memphis. The Robinson family awakes to the sound of banging on the front door. A large man wearing a neon vest and gloves asks “Truck or curb?” The Robinson family is being evicted. The man asks whether they would like their possessions to be placed in a truck, where they will be taken to a storage facility for $350 per month, or the sidewalk. Since The Robinsons know they don’t have enough to foot the $350 storage bill, they opt for the curb. “Excuse me,” the large man says, as he and his team walk through the door. They begin to take everything out of the house—couches, food, family pictures—it all has to go. Mrs. Robinson wakes up the kids and tells them to get dressed. In a matter of minutes all of the Robinson’s earthly possessions are strewn across a busy sidewalk in downtown Memphis, stuffed animals and all.
Sadly, this vignette of the Robinson family is not unique. Housing is one of the greatest challenges poor Americans face. Among the plethora of issues surrounding housing, the most pressing are first, the rampant instability caused by perpetual evictions, second, the racial and economic segregation caused by the well-intentioned liberal policies of the 1960s , and third, the amount of government inefficiency with regards to affordable housing rolls, which has stuck families who qualify for housing assistance quite literally out on the street with no help.
The raw numbers indicate that about 3.7 million renters were evicted last year. This kind of widespread instability ravages families. Low income families in the private renting market spend about seventy percent of their income on housing. One unexpected expense, such as an injury or a car repair, can force a family onto the street. As Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted, says, “Eviction isn’t just a condition of living in poverty, it is a cause of poverty.” This kind of perpetual instability is a scourge on our society and needs to be addressed with more than just good intentions.
In Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Democrats built on the well-intentioned policies of the thirties and began to build large apartment-style buildings to house low-income families at a subsidized rate. The idea behind the policy was undoubtedly benign, but the outcome has proven to be insidious. Just take a look at most major cities. They are completely segregated.
Many of the families who needed housing assistance in early- to mid-20th century were African American. Section eight housing complexes were built in neighborhoods with little economic activity, and it became harder and harder to find decent jobs in these redlined communities. Racism also played a major role in denying credit and capital to families of color, making sure they stayed in poor neighborhoods and communities. Because of the way these programs were set up in the 60s, the resulting inequality only intensified. It is heartbreaking that, for many families, traditional affordable housing is dangerous, and the communities they are relegated to offer little opportunity for jobs or a good education. The American dream has been snatched from the folks who need it the most.
Imagine if only one in four senior citizens who qualified for social security actually received their check in the mail. It would be a national outrage! Well, shockingly, only one in four families who qualify for federal housing assistance are able to get it. Names are kept on rolls for years until they can get into a unit. The bureaucracy of the federal government is seriously inefficient, in this case at the expense of poor families across the nation.
The good news is that there is a conservative solution that can bring stability to low income families, desegregate communities, reduce inequality, and ensure that every family who qualifies for assistance actually receives it. With a voucher system we can truly eliminate poverty in America.
The program begins on the county level, where a fair market rate is calculated. The fair market rate would be an average of all housing prices across every municipality in the county. The voucher would approve a family to move into a home at this rate. This would allow families to relocate to places where there are better school districts, better opportunities for employment, and increased safety.
Families would pay 35 percent of their income to pay for this voucher, similar to what they would pay in traditional affordable housing. This allows for a drastic increase in financial security and quality of life. The key part of this voucher system, however, contrasts directly with the liberal way of governing. This voucher system is a rent-to-own program. Every payment the family makes goes towards eventually owning their house and getting off of assistance. In traditional affordable housing a family can make rent payments for 15 to 20 years and have absolutely nothing to show for it. With the voucher system, in 15 to 20 years a family can own their own home. This program truly is, as Robert Kennedy said, “A hand up and not a hand out.”
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