As a lifelong Republican, I am heartened by House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE’s continuing focus on combating poverty in America. It is simply unacceptable that nearly 47 million people live in poverty in a nation as wealthy as the United States. Proposals to get our economy back on track must be as inclusive as possible and build from the bottom up. As Jack Kemp once remarked, “economic growth does not mean anything if it leaves people out.”
This past February, the Speaker established a House Republican Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, and Upward Mobility to develop a set of proposals to strengthen the safety net while helping people lead more productive lives. The Task Force, whose members include the chairmen of several key House committees, is expected to release its plan sometime in June.
My message to the Task Force is simple: Broadening access to stable and affordable housing must be a central element of any effective anti-poverty strategy.
Policies to promote a more vibrant economy, greater wage growth, better schools, and stronger families are all critical to enhancing the life prospects of millions of Americans. But, for too long, we have underestimated the role that housing plays as a foundation for upward mobility.
Housing, of course, is shelter, a necessity of life. But it is also the bridge that links us to our neighbors, communities, and the world beyond.
Research shows that stable, affordable housing is critical to academic achievement. That’s no surprise. After all, how can a child be academically successful if she must repeatedly move – changing schools, losing mentors and friends, and missing out on key parts of the curriculum – simply because her family can't afford the rent? What kid is ready to focus and learn in class when the night before his bed was in an abandoned van or a shelter?
Ask yourself: Could you have succeeded under these circumstances?
The location of housing is also critical. A home located in a good neighborhood close to jobs and other opportunities can serve as a gateway to economic success. Those families who cannot afford to live in these communities are often relegated to unsafe neighborhoods with few employment prospects.
Many residents of these low-opportunity communities are forced to spend excessive amounts of time and money on long commutes to their jobs.
In desperation, some among us forego housing altogether. Yet how can we expect a person to win and hold a job if his bed is a park bench?
Unfortunately, for some families, these struggles with housing stability and affordability span generations, a fact vividly demonstrated by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond in his new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
Today, a record number of households, 11.8 million, spend in excess of 50 percent of their income just on rent. That means fewer dollars for other essentials like medical care, nutritious food, and education.
A severe shortage of affordable rental homes is a key driver of these high rental-cost burdens. It’s estimated there are just 31 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 “extremely low-income” households. Federal rental assistance programs provide much-needed help, but fewer than one in four eligible households receives aid. Most assistance is distributed through long waiting lists and by lottery.
With rents rising across the country, fewer Americans are able to save for a mortgage down payment. The national homeownership rate has dropped nearly six percentage points from its high in 2004. The homeownership rates for minority households and young adults have plummeted. Millions of creditworthy families are now excluded from the wealth-building opportunities that homeownership can provide.
In the coming decade, these twin problems – rising rent burdens and diminished access to homeownership – are likely to worsen because of powerful demographic trends, most notably the increasing diversity of the U.S. population.
For me, the conclusion is inescapable: If you want to fight poverty and promote upward mobility, start by repairing our nation’s failing housing system. When they release their anti-poverty plan, House Republicans have a great opportunity to make this critical connection. However, if the plan ignores the central role of stable, affordable housing in helping people lead productive lives, it will be fatally flawed.
Lazio is a member of the executive committee of the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America's Families and a partner at the Jones Walker law firm. He served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.