By Jeffrey Lubell
The report that Abt Associates recently prepared for HUD on the short-term (18-month) impacts of the Family Options Study focuses on a comparison of the benefits and costs of three alternative approaches to helping homeless families with children: permanent housing subsidy (generally a Housing Choice Voucher), community-based rapid rehousing, project-based transitional housing, and “usual care.” For many readers, the primary takeaway of this comparison will be largely (but not entirely) a finding of stronger outcomes for recipients receiving direct access to a permanent housing subsidy.
In this column, I highlight a somewhat different aspect of the report: the findings regarding the impacts of permanent housing subsidies on adult and child well-being. There is a broad and growing literature focused on examining “how housing matters,” facilitated most recently by a large investment of funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. These studies are sharpening our understanding of how different aspects of the housing bundle (for example, housing quality, housing location, or housing affordability) may contribute to (or undermine) important outcomes in the domains of physical and mental health, education, and workforce development. (For accessible summaries of key aspects of this research, see here and here.)
Given its rigorous random assignment design and careful measure of a range of outcomes across multiple policy domains, the Family Options Study makes an important contribution to this literature. Specifically, the study finds that, after 18 months, homeless families offered direct access to a permanent housing subsidy experienced the following relative to a comparison group of homeless families not offered this direct access:
(NOTE: All findings are statistically significant at the .05 or .01 levels unless otherwise noted. Confirmatory outcomes and the small number of comparisons pre-selected for the executive summary are reported in bold italics. The pre-selection of a limited number of comparisons helps address concerns that some of the many hundreds of comparisons assessed will be significant solely due to chance.)
- Housing Outcomes: Substantial declines in the share that were doubled-up or used shelter in the past six months; improvements in housing quality; a reduction in crowding; and a reduction in the number of places a family lived during the study period.
- Family Preservation: A substantial decline in the share of families who had at least one child separated in the past six months and the related finding of a decline in the share of families who had at least one foster placement in the past six months.
- Adult Well-being: Declines in the incidence of psychological distress, intimate partner violence, and alcohol or drug use (p=.10), and an increase in the share of adult heads of household exhibiting goal-oriented thinking.
- Child Well-being: A decline in the number of schools that children attended (suggesting greater school stability), a decline in childcare or school absences (p=.10), and a small increase in the incidence of anxiety among 8 to 17-year olds (p=.10).
- Economic outcomes: Declines in the share of families reporting food insecurity and economic stress, but also a decline in the share who were working.
The housing outcomes are not particularly surprising, confirming that permanent housing subsidies work as intended to reduce homelessness. The decline in work effort is also not surprising, as it consistent with the findings of prior studies. Several previous studies (see, e.g., the reports available here and here) have found the receipt of housing assistance to be associated with reductions in employment / earnings that proved to be temporary, fading to insignificance over time (though a study in Chicago found that it persisted over time). A concern about the effects of housing assistance on adults’ work effort is one reason to focus on housing-based self-sufficiency efforts like the Family Self-Sufficiency Program which create incentives and provide services to encourage and support earnings growth.
Many of the other findings, by contrast, are more novel, providing promising new evidence of the potential of permanent housing subsidies to support adult and child well-being. While practitioners and advocates have long asserted that housing assistance contributes to beneficial outcomes for children and adults, the Family Options Study provides some of the most rigorous evidence to date for these benefits. Of particular note are the declines in the share of families experiencing the separation of a child and the declines in the share of adults reporting psychological distress and intimate partner violence. The educational data are intriguing though not yet supported by significant improvements in school grades or other similar outcomes.
Skeptics will rightly note that the study focuses on early impacts only and that the results may not hold up over the long term. (Indeed, analysis is already underway for a report analyzing 36-month impacts.) This study will also need to be considered in the context of other studies on homelessness and the effects of housing assistance on children and adults. The study that Abt conducted for HUD on the “Effects of Housing Vouchers on Welfare Families” (2006) is a particularly important point of comparison. Like the Family Options Study, it found that vouchers reduced homelessness, crowding, short-term labor market outcomes, and the number of times a family moved. Unlike the Family Options Study, however, the earlier study mostly did not find positive child and adult impacts outside of the housing domain. The differences between the findings of the two studies may perhaps be explained by variations in the outcomes measured in each study as well as differences in the populations being studied – the Family Options Study focuses on homeless families whereas the earlier study focused on families receiving or eligible to receive TANF (only 2 percent of families in the latter study reported living in a homeless shelter or transitional housing as of the time of the baseline survey though some had previously been homeless).
To explore the significance of these findings in greater depth and discuss how rigorous research on the impacts of housing assistance can help strengthen housing policy, join Abt and guest experts for a convening at D.C’s Newseum on September 21 titled: Is Housing Stability Essential for Family Well-Being? A Forum on the Implications of the Family Options Study.
About "In House," a column by Jeffrey Lubell
Jeffrey Lubell is Director of Housing and Community Initiatives at Abt Associates. His column, "In House," focuses on the nexus of housing policy and research. To read Lubell’s previous columns, click here.
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