FACT VS. SPIN: The Myth that Homelessness Is Only a Jobs Problem

As we noted recently, new NYC Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond plans — as he told the New York Times on the day of his appointment — “to import more of the work-based philosophy that dominates the city’s welfare agency to the homeless services system.” Since then, Diamond has apparently been on a bit of a PR blitz, espousing the same “work-first” approach to the New York Daily News and the Wall Street Journal.

Last week, after meeting with Diamond, the Daily News‘ editorial board effusively praised the new commissioner’s approach to homelessness — which is, frankly, consistent with the Bloomberg administration’s approach for the past eight years and is rooted in Giuliani-era punitive welfare-reform policies.

Now, the Daily News editorial board is of course entitled to its opinion. But as Bernard Baruch said, “Every man has a right to be wrong in his opinions. But no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.” And here are a few ways that the editorial distorts facts and reality to support the Bloomberg administration’s “work-first” rhetoric:

• THE SPIN: The Daily News editorial writes:

For far too long, this [shelter] was considered an entitlement, a declaration of homelessness was seen as a ticket to better accommodations and shelter facilities were swamped.

• THE FACTS: The Daily News editorial revives the tired old myth that providing affordable housing assistance — in particular, Federal housing vouchers — in some way “induces” homeless people to seek shelter.

Of course, research studies by Columbia University economist Brendan O’Flaherty and others (summarized here) have conclusively disproved this claim. And so has recent history. Indeed, since Mayor Bloomberg cut off homeless families from Federal housing programs five years ago, the number of homeless families seeking shelter has actually soared to all-time record levels, even though Bloomberg administration officials predicted the opposite.

• THE SPIN:The Daily News ed board writes:

To reapply for aid [a time-limited Advantage rent subsidy] for a second year, former shelter residents would have to work full time — 35 hours a week, paid — in order to continue receiving a supplement.

That’s an absolutely realistic goal….

• THE FACTS: The Daily News ed board may describe the 35-hour-per-week requirement as a “realistic goal,” but the City’s own data shows that the majority of working families in the Work Advantage program don’t meet that target. As City officials (including Diamond) testified at recent New York City Council hearings, Work Advantage families worked an average of 32 hours/week in 2009, and an average of 30 hours/week this year.

At an April 15th hearing, New York City Councilmember Brad Lander challenged City officials on the wisdom of introducing a requirement with which most working Advantage families won’t be able to comply, particularly given that employers of low-wage workers often deliberately keep weekly work hours under 35 hours in order to avoid providing benefits.  City officials said they would not change the 35-hour requirement, which will inevitably result in many families losing their rental assistance after only one year.

Finally, the editorial leaves out one essential fact about the Advantage program: It’s time-limited to two years and cuts off rental assistance even if the family does not have the income to afford their apartment. And as we noted earlier, City data shows that the typical Work Advantage family earns around $1,150/month and has a rent bill of $1,100/month.

• THE SPIN: The Daily News editorial says:

Under Bloomberg, who set out to end chronic homelessness, New York has moved away from treating the issue as one of housing.

• THE FACTS: Well, actually, the editorial is right about this one. Mayor Bloomberg and his administration’s policies have ignored a wealth of academic research and evidence showing that homelessness is, at root, a housing affordability problem. And the Mayor’s refusal to accept this fact is the main reason New York City’s homeless shelter population is at an all-time high.

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