Last week, U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson testified before Congress, defending the Trump Administration’s proposed 15 percent cut to his agency’s budget. His testimony came just days after he called poverty a “state of mind,” emphasizing the importance of working and avoiding dependence on government assistance.
While living in poverty can affect mental health—leading to elevated depression and anxiety, for example—calling poverty a “state of mind” insults the millions of people who experience its harsh reality. It also obscures the real issues. No one disputes that work is important. But, as a new report on the high cost of housing details, jobs at the current minimum wage do not pay enough to afford housing. There is not a single county in the United States where one can work 40 hours a week for minimum wage and afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at market rate. That’s not a “state of mind.” It’s simple arithmetic.
While the proposed budget is not expected to be enacted by Congress, the danger is that it will set a new and dangerous baseline of what is “reasonable,” focusing attention on fighting against the most draconian cuts instead of on meeting the need. Secretary Carson himself acknowledged that the current HUD budget meets a fraction of the need, reaching just one in four Americans who are poor enough to qualify for assistance.
“There is not a single county in the United States where one can work 40 hours a week for minimum wage and afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at market rate. That’s not a 'state of mind.' It’s simple arithmetic.”
So what does this actually mean? Waiting lists for housing assistance are years long, and in many cities they are so long they have been closed. While they wait, some people may double up with friends and family, sleeping on couches or floors. And some may become homeless. In fact, the No. 1 cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing.
For those who become homeless, even emergency shelter may not be available, leaving many—including families, children and young people on their own—to struggle for survival on streets, in parks, cars, and other public places. Even worse, they may be ticketed, arrested or even jailed for violating laws that criminalize homelessness by making it illegal to sleep, sit or even eat in public.
At the exact same time Secretary Carson was testifying before Congress, over 150 advocates from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., at Housing Not Handcuffs: 2017 National Forum on the Human Right to Housing. Organized by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, with participation by many other national and local organizations, the forum featured experts on topics ranging from intersectional forms of discrimination that result in criminalization of homeless persons to models of advocacy that are succeeding in a number of cities across the country.
The proposed cuts to HUD programs and the announced rollback of criminal justice reforms were a key focus of discussion. Forum participants strategized on how best to fight against criminalization and for increased access to affordable housing. The discussion was inspiring and energizing—but our work is far from finished.
On July 29, advocates from across the country will again focus our collective energy to advocate for affordable housing with the Our Homes, Our Voices National Day of Action. Groups will organize rallies and press conferences, host teach-ins and site visits, meet directly with members of Congress, and encourage their networks to participate in call-ins to their elected officials.
Research overwhelmingly shows that access to adequate housing significantly reduces poverty, increases educational success for students, improves physical and mental health, and strengthens the economy. Housing is a basic human need, and it’s a human right. We need to raise our voices together to demand increased access to affordable housing—to end homelessness and poverty in America.