The Johns Hopkins Gazette: June 7, 1999
June 7, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 37


Q&A: Sandra Newman on Welfare Reform and Housing

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Sandra J. Newman is the interim director of the Institute for Policy Studies, a professor in the master's program in policy studies and a researcher who focuses on housing assistance policy and the housing needs of the poor, the homeless, the elderly and persons with disabilities.

She is the editor of a new book that examines the relationship between housing policy and welfare reform. The Home Front: Implications of Welfare Reform for Housing Policy has just been published by the Urban Institute Press.

Newman recently talked about the relationship between welfare reform and housing policy.

What's the impact you hope the book will have?

I'd be gratified if the book alerted people to the connections between welfare reform and housing and raised the level of information, discussion and debate about this subject. The book implicitly asks a central question: How do people react to government housing subsidies? Does a guarantee of affordable and decent housing serve as a springboard to help get people into the economic mainstream, or does it serve as a cushion so they are less motivated to comply with welfare reform because their housing is secure? If it's the former, we need to think about whether to expand housing assistance. If it's the latter, then at a minimum we need to reconsider the current design of multibillion-dollar housing programs.

That question has never been satisfactorily answered by policy-makers?

It hasn't. Housing programs have historically been viewed as an end in themselves in that we wanted to provide people with decent housing. That was the goal. I have argued that the debate surrounding welfare reform over the past 10 to 15 years indicates that societal norms are changing regarding the safety net, and part of the standard we now use to judge safety net programs is not only whether these programs redress poverty or inadequate housing but whether the programs also play a role in moving people to self-sufficiency.

Until very recently, housing programs have not been studied from this new perspective. Until we are able to answer this question, we won't know whether housing programs send the right signals to tenants. And politically, housing will continue to be left out of the major social policy debates.

Why is this important?

Housing has been excluded from virtually all the conversations about how to reform welfare, from the very beginning of the country's focus on how to fix the welfare system.... But it is very important for us to understand what role housing may play in welfare reform for several reasons. First, there's a substantial overlap between families who receive welfare and those who receive housing assistance.

In fact, when welfare reform began to be implemented, about one million families were receiving both. Second, if you have inconsistent laws and regulations in the two programs, you will be sending mixed and confusing messages to recipients. But most fundamentally, we don't really understand how housing assistance affects behavior, and since the goal of welfare reform is to encourage the parents in these families to seek jobs, it's not clear that the message sent by the housing assistance subsidy is the same.

So in terms of policy development and implementation, it's important to look at the connections between welfare reform and assisted housing?

That's correct, but the book goes beyond that to consider the housing impacts of welfare reform on those who are not receiving housing assistance. Seventy-five percent of welfare recipients do not get housing assistance.

We look at what the new welfare regulations are likely to do to the housing needs of those families also, and we're particularly interested in time limits on receiving welfare and other sanctions. The first part of the book lays out the evidence and describes the results of new research on how welfare reform is likely to affect housing.

The middle part looks at programs to improve self-sufficiency among very disadvantaged people, in particular what lessons we can learn for the housing assistance system from previous research on those sorts of programs. We examine what has worked in the welfare system to promote self-sufficiency and look at appropriate ways to design research to understand what makes such programs successful.

The last part of the book focuses on the experiences of housing assistance practitioners: what they experience with housing assistance recipients who are also receiving welfare, what parts of the current housing system are not in sync with welfare reform and whether they think housing assistance helps to move families to self-sufficiency.