New research analyzes how income inequality drives homelessness in the United States
Income inequality drives hundreds of people homeless every night in dozens of communities across the United States, according to new search in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences.
A community of 740,000 people where income disparities have increased sharply over the past decade can expect more than 550 more people to be homeless on any given night, the researchers report in their article, “Rising Tide Drowns Unstable Boats: How Inequality Creates Homelessness. “
The results may not surprise residents of expensive cities like New York City, where, according to federal data, 13% of the country’s homeless population lives. West Coast cities with high housing costs, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, also have well-documented homelessness crises.
The new research is among the first to analyze the specific ways in which income inequality affects homelessness at the local level.
“Ultimately, income inequality excludes low-income households from housing markets,” says lead author Thomas Byrne, an assistant professor at Boston University studying housing.
Income inequality refers to the income gap between those who earn the most and those who earn the least. Income is separated from wealth, which is accumulated through stock market investments, real estate, and other means besides wages earned for work and other taxable income.
Imperfect data on homelessness
About 580,000 people are homeless in the United States, according to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development 2020 Annual Report in Congress.
National figures on homelessness are imprecise as they are based on an annual tally carried out on a single night at the end of January. A homeless person is a person who “does not have a fixed, regular and adequate night residence”, according to the report.
About 60% of the homeless identified are in shelters while 40% are not accommodated and live, for example, on the street, in a park, a vehicle or an abandoned building.
“Rent is getting too high to live on,” a Seattle tenant said in 2017, responding to a investigation from the city Seattle Women’s Commission and the King County Bar Association Housing Justice Project, which offers free legal aid to local tenants facing eviction.
While the total number of homeless has fallen by 10% since the federal agency’s first count in 2007, the authors of the new document note that the increase in homelessness in some large communities has pushed up the national count. since 2016.
HUD counts homeless people living in nearly 400 geographic areas known as continuums of care. It is easier to think of a continuum of care as a network of service providers, including nonprofits and government agencies, tackling issues of homelessness within and sometimes between regions. The staff of these providers, as well as local volunteers, do the annual tally for one night.
Some cities, such as New York and St. Louis, have their own continuums of care. For other places, such as Denver, the continuum of care includes Metropolitan area. In less densely populated areas – Montana, North Dakota, and Delaware, for example – an entire state could be a continuum of care.
The HUD data is flawed in other respects. Academic the researchers noted the agency does not report measures of uncertainty, such as margins of error, and that some homeless people are not included in the homeless count because it only happens overnight.
Yet this is the most comprehensive current data available on homelessness in the United States, and it is routinely used in housing and homelessness research.
Uneven growth of inequalities
The authors of the new article believe that a Gini coefficient, a widely used measure of income distribution, for 239 continua of care from 2007 to 2018. These communities accounted for 77% of people who were homeless on any given night in 2018.
The authors exclude communities of less than 65,000 inhabitants because Census Bureau estimates on median household income, median rent and other factors associated with homelessness are not available for small communities.
The Gini coefficient is often expressed on a rating scale of 0 to 100. A score closer to 0 indicates less inequality, while a score closer to 100 means more inequality.
The national Gini coefficient closely follows the share of income that the Top 10% of employees report home, according to the authors.
The mean Gini score was 44 for all years and communities studied.
Income inequality increased by 0.37 points, by about 1%, over the decade studied, but varied widely for each community. About a third of the communities saw their estimated Gini score increase by more than one point, more than double the average growth rate of the communities studied.
The major cities and surrounding areas that have experienced a relatively larger increase in income inequality are Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.
Small communities in the same category include Amarillo, Texas; Burlington, Vermont; Camden, New Jersey; Chico, California; DeKalb, Illinois; Lakeland, Florida; Portsmouth, Virginia; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Utique, New York; and Worcester, Massachusetts.
The full list is available here.
The average community in the authors’ dataset had a population of 740,000, roughly the size of Seattle.
For a community of this size, a one-point increase in the Gini score is associated with an additional 562 people not having a home on any given night, the researchers said.
“We can have a lasting impact”
The goal is to remove “up to 130,000 people from the streets” over the next 12 to 18 months, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge said. mentionned during a press briefing on March 18.
“If we are strategic about how these funds are used, we can have a lasting impact,” Byrne says.
His new article, written with associate professor at the University of Southern California Benjamin henwood and assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University Anthony Orlando, could be instructive.
The authors examine two ways in which income inequality could lead to homelessness.
The first is what people spend on housing.
The supply of housing generally cannot keep up with the demand for housing in cities. There is “an urban renaissance”, Orlando wrote in his 2018 doctoral thesis, “and housing is not being built fast enough”. Zoning and land use regulations are two big reasons housing supply cannot keep up.
What happens when the supply of housing cannot keep up with the demand? The prices go up.
This increases the chances that people who earn less money will be burdened with housing costs, meaning they spend more than 30% of their pre-tax income on housing. Some people will pay more to stay in their homes, while higher prices will drive others away.
Housing researchers noted limits of the 30% threshold – although analytically this is “a useful way to establish a binary relationship from which research can then distinguish which households are overburdened with costs of those who are not ”, as the authors of a recent article on the burden of rural housing wrote.
The second way that income inequality could lead to homelessness has to do with the pace of house price increases. Booming communities attract high-income, highly-skilled workers, who quickly drive up housing prices, the authors say.
Their analysis most strongly associates growing income inequality with the burden of housing costs, rather than with the rate at which house prices are rising, although the authors characterize this finding as “tentative” and point out that further research are necessary.
Yet they write that “although many proponents of housing policy focus on slowing the growth of house prices, this strategy alone is unlikely to be enough to prevent homelessness. It is important to include policies that increase the ability of low-income households to afford housing – for example, increasing the minimum wage, levels of public benefits and the provision of housing. Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers. “
The authors further stress that their findings “show the importance of local inequalities, as opposed to national inequalities”.
But Byrne says there’s one thing the federal government could do to dramatically reduce homelessness: make sure everyone who needs a housing choice voucher gets one.
Article 8, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is the federal government’s largest effort to help low-income people rent safe housing. The program subsidizes 70% of monthly rent and utilities for families earning less than half the median income for the county or metropolitan area in which they live.
While about 2.2 million households use Federal Housing Choice Vouchers, eligible households are not automatically enrolled, and about three quarters of eligible households do not use them.
A study of voucher program participants examined more than 69,000 households offering a voucher and found that 48% had used it. There are various reasons, including owners who do not accept vouchers and not enough good.
“It sounds trite to say, but homelessness is an issue rooted in affordability, and income inequality actually makes it harder for individuals to afford housing,” Byrne said. “Helping them find housing is a logical and sensible response. The thing that would have the biggest impact on reducing homelessness would be making Section 8 universally accessible to all who are eligible. “