Housing and Compassion

For many Americans, public housing has become synonymous with urban decay. The people who live in the "projects" are widely viewed as trapped by poverty and dependence - easy prey for criminal gangs and dope peddlers.

That, unfortunately, describes life for all too many residents of the nation's more than 13,000 public housing developments. Federal lawmakers, whose funding and regulatory schemes helped create this situation, are currently trying to do something to correct it.

The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that would overhaul public housing along lines not dissimilar from last year's welfare reform legislation. In essence, the Republicans who sponsored the bill want to end another federal "handout" for the poor - particularly the poor who don't work. In place of the longstanding policy of reserving most public housing for the very poor, who typically are unemployed and on welfare, they would open more such housing to the working poor.

There's a sound reason for this change. The concentration of extremely poor people in public housing has led to a social pathology - a setting bereft of community leaders, functioning families, and good models for young people. Efforts to bring in wage-earning families with higher aspirations are positive.

But the House approach could have a negative side effect. What happens to current residents who eventually lose their eligibility for public housing? Under incentives and requirements in the proposed law, some will find their way to regular employment, or at least to public-service work. But thousands of others, because of very young children, disabilities, or a local dearth of jobs, may find it difficult to stay in subsidized housing under the new rules. What's their alternative? The supply of housing available to the poorest Americans has long been dwindling. The federal Section 8 voucher program, which allows low-income families to venture into the private housing market, is also being aimed toward the working poor.

If the federal housing law remake is not to result in a surge in the homeless population, it needs to address the housing needs of the poorest families, who can't be quickly lifted from poverty by a sharp congressional prod. At the least, the Section 8 program should be opened to them.

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