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Sending the Wrong Signals

City Journal

May 31, 2023

The New York City Council has added another misguided new progressive policy to those, like bail reform and safe drug-injection sites, that make life worse for the poor in the name of helping them. By a vote of 41 to seven—and in the face of Mayor Eric Adams’s opposition—the council voted last week to pass a new housing-assistance law that risks increasing the number of poor households with children and encouraging young women to make bad life choices.

The changes enacted by the law may sound technical and esoteric at first, but the results won’t be. The measure ends the requirement that families entering city housing shelters—almost all single mothers with children—wait 90 days before qualifying for a housing voucher that would provide city funds to pay rent on apartments of their own. Removal of this requirement shows a fundamental naivete: in a housing market constrained by regulations on rent and construction, a voucher hardly guarantees one’s ability to find housing. Moreover, as Mayor Adams has helpfully pointed out, the city doesn’t have an unlimited budget for housing vouchers.

If Adams follows through on his pledge to veto the council bill, he should also cite the perverse incentive that the council’s approach would provide for a “homeless” family to form a single-parent household. Incredibly, per a New York Department of Homeless Services rule, a single young pregnant woman can go to an Adult Intake Center and qualify for shelter simply because, prospectively, she and her baby will not have their own apartment and might have to double-up with family members. It is these individuals—“lone” parents with kids, not the street homeless about whom New Yorkers are most concerned—who currently comprise the majority of the city’s shelter population. The Coalition for the Homeless reports that, as of December 2022, more than two-thirds of the city’s 68,884 shelter residents were parents or children. These are not households who were living on the street before asking for shelter. Indeed, only about 22,000 of those in shelters were single adults—the “homeless” who are at risk of living on the street or posing a danger to public safety.

Consider the incentives that come with ending the 90-day rule. A young woman considering out-of-wedlock pregnancy would know that doing so comes with the prospect of a quickly obtained city subsidy for an apartment of her own—with no limit on how long she may live there. The city council is sending a signal, and it’s a bad one.

As the Annie E. Casey Foundation, far from a conservative organization, reports: “Single-parent families—and especially mother-only households—are more likely to live in poverty compared to married-parent households. Given this, kids of single parents are more likely to experience the consequences of growing up poor. Children in poverty are more likely to have physical, mental and behavioral health problems, disrupted brain development, shorter educational trajectories, contact with the child welfare and justice systems, employment challenges in adulthood and more.”

This is not “poverty-shaming,” as city council member Diana Ayala has branded opposition to the law. It’s the truth. For mothers and their children, it would be better to be overcrowded in a relative’s apartment (barring abusive situations) and better still not to have a child out-of-wedlock in the first place. Using the shelter system to qualify for an apartment as a single, pregnant woman should be discouraged. City council members are encouraging it.

The shelter system should justifiably provide places of refuge for mothers and their children in numerous instances. Domestic violence is one. But simple overcrowding should not immediately qualify an individual for a city-issued housing voucher. If that is to be the standard, immigrant households across the city would qualify, too—and fewer vouchers would be available for those truly in danger of harm.

Former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, to its credit, mounted a public advertising campaign to discourage teen pregnancy, with its attendant negative implications for both young mothers and their children. Now the city council is incentivizing it, and thus working against a key part of the so-called success sequence that leads out of poverty. Mayor Adams is right to push back against this law, for more than budget reasons. He should follow through with his veto—and hope that, somehow, common sense takes hold of enough council members to sustain it.