Public housing,National Bureau of Economic Research

What You Think You Know About Kids and Public Housing is Wrong

November 4, 2016
in Kids

A public-housing complex in Harlem, New York City. (AP Photos / Bebeto Matthews) Finish this sentence: “Children who grow up in public housing…” Whatever your political leanings, you probably didn’t come up with “do better in life than their peers who didn’t.” But according to a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), it’s true. The authors compared siblings who spent different amounts of time in public housing, and found that the children who spent more time in the projects had higher earnings and a lower chance of being incarcerated. Kids got a similar benefit when their families received vouchers to help them pay the rent at a private apartment. The point, of course, is not that public housing is an ideal place to spend a childhood. It’s that the alternatives can be much worse. In my city, Nashua, New Hampshire, one of those alternatives is the Country Barn Motel and Campground. It’s an old house and barn that the owners turned into a bunch of individual rooms, plus some trailers on blocks. Everything’s painted a rustic brown, and when I visited—a week before Halloween—it was decorated with fake cobwebs. It’s a nice place in a lot of ways. Kids ride bikes around the quiet, wooded grounds, and neighbors volunteer to babysit for each other. But many of the families here are facing the kinds of stress that can have troubling long-term consequences for kids. Inside one door, guarded by three carved pumpkins, Crystal and Jimmy live with their baby, 5-year-old son, and 3-year-old daughter in a single room. There are two beds, a TV, a refrigerator, and a stove—only one of the electric burners works—and that’s about it. They’ve been here for about five months. While I talked with the adults, the older kids showed off their gymnastic moves, mostly ignoring a cartoon playing on the TV. “We’re trying to save money for a place, but everywhere’s expensive,” Jimmy said. Before moving here, the family lived with Jimmy’s stepmom. But, between her five kids and their three, squeezing everyone into a three-bedroom apartment didn’t work for long. Crystal and Jimmy have been on a wait list for public housing for two years, but their number hasn’t come up. Researchers who study housing policy have found that’s not terribly unusual. As of 2012, there were around 6.5 million US households waiting for either a spot in public housing or a housing voucher. Crystal and Jimmy do get government help with their rent, but it’s...

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