Despite an unemployment rate that has sunk below 5 percent, many Americans are justifiably concerned about their prospects - and those of their children - in an uncertain and unsettling economy.
A report published this month by the Congressional Budget Office shows why. It found a 188 percent increase in the incomes of the top 1 percent from 1979 to 2013. Incomes of middle-class and low-income workers rose by only 18 percent during the same time period, according to the CBO's analysis.
Many low-income workers juggle multiple jobs, with work hours that vary every week. They often are scheduled for fewer hours than they would like, causing volatility in their income and stress at home.
I spend a lot of my time talking to leaders around the country about what we can do to make people's lives better. How can we make the necessary changes to our federal programs, philanthropic giving or private sector investments to create an environment where children who enter life with difficult circumstances have a real opportunity to climb the economic ladder?
My conclusion: You can't talk seriously about poverty, inequality or opportunity in America without addressing the growing housing affordability crisis.
For most families, housing costs are their largest expense, and one that has been increasing in recent years despite tepid wage growth for low-wage workers. Among lower-income households, housing costs have increased more than 50 percent since the mid-1990s. In 2014, 11.4 million families, or one in four renter households, spent more than half their income on rent.
These issues have been poorly understood for far too long. My organization, Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., is the sponsoring partner of Make Room, a national advocacy campaign aiming to get renters on the national agenda.
Make Room recently commissioned a national poll that revealed how prevalent financial woes are among our neighbors. Of the 1,006 people we surveyed, 40 percent had experienced some form of financial distress - such as a job loss or reduction in pay - since 2008. Nearly a third said they are worried they will have to move due to high housing costs. While the poll results are a sign that Americans are being suffocated by rising rents and stagnant wages, they also reveal a strong desire to solve the problem. In Make Room's survey, 77 percent of all respondents supported more affordable rental homes in their communities. An even higher number - 81 percent - agreed that state and local representatives should prioritize the creation of affordable homes for lower-wage workers.
Another poll, released last week by the MacArthur Foundation, provided further confirmation that Americans are concerned about these issues. More than three in five adults surveyed believe that housing affordability is not getting enough attention in the presidential election and 57 percent say the lack of affordable homes is a problem.
With so many of our neighbors financially strangled by rising housing costs, it's positive that people recognize the need for smart investments to bring some relief.
High housing costs have driven vital middle-class workers out of their communities. Teachers, personal care workers and nurses are forced to live far from the communities they serve due to soaring home prices and unaffordable rent. Americans don't want to leave these friends and neighbors behind. The onus is on elected officials to listen and act.
We need a bipartisan commitment to increase the supply of affordable homes. We must expand vital supports such as housing vouchers. And we need to ensure lower-wage workers are financially stable through a fair minimum wage and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the successful federal program that has earned bipartisan praise for supplementing the earnings of low-income workers while providing an incentive to work.
Focusing on the cost of major expenses such as housing as well as boosting people's incomes will mean an improved economy for all. When people spend less on housing there's more money to spend on necessities like food and clothing, which benefits local economies. Long-term affordability also translates into better outcomes for families and stronger community bonds.
There are some encouraging signs on the horizon. At the local level, thoughtful mayors are making the need for affordable rental homes a key part of their agendas. They include mayors Michael Hancock in Denver, Ed Murray in Seattle and Kasim Reed in Atlanta.
On a national level, there is considerable opportunity for bipartisan agreement. Most recently, from opposite sides of the political aisle, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) have joined together to introduce the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act.
This legislation includes an expansion of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which would create more than 400,000 additional affordable homes across the nation during the next 10 years. The tax credit makes use of private funding, private development expertise and market discipline to lift families out of dire financial straits.
Instead of mistaking the need for affordable homes as a partisan issue, it is time for our leaders in city halls, state legislatures and Congress to enact common-sense measures that give families the opportunity to succeed.