For a Prosperous Nation, Invest in Families and Communities

by Maya Brennan

Healthy families and thriving communities are essential for the nation’s prosperity. Yet, when looking for a place to live, many people find that the door is closed. Wages are not keeping up with rents, and paychecks are stretched too thin to qualify for a mortgage (or save for a down payment). Job markets have not fully recovered, leaving potential workers unemployed or underemployed. And older Americans and people with work-limiting disabilities find that the cost of living goes up, but funds to cover those costs are not keeping up.

From small towns to big cities, households’ daily financial trade-offs are affecting their quality of life, reducing opportunities, and impeding economic success. Mayors hear this concern every day, and the problem could be worse without the strong and continued partnership of the federal government.

A Federal Role in Local and Household Success

What does Lee County, Mississippi, have in common with San Francisco, California? Whether in one of the most affordable communities or one of the costliest, apartments that meet minimum quality standards and are affordable for extremely low-income households are hard to come by. In each, assistance from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) helps 26 out of every 100 poor renter households afford the rent.

In every state, many poor families and seniors rely on federal assistance, typically offered through HUD. HUD is more than just funds to cities: 12 percent of HUD-assisted rentals are in nonmetropolitan areas, a number similar to the share of households who live outside metropolitan communities.

The federal role in rental assistance also extends beyond HUD. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) supplements HUD’s assistance to rural communities, ensuring that more poor rural households can rent a decent home. Without the financial partnership of HUD and the USDA, the calls for help to local governments would be even higher, and community economic success and individual well-being would be at risk.

Whether in Mississippi or California, federal rental assistance helps households avoid sinking deeper into poverty. Households who receive assistance are often highly vulnerable, trying to get by on an average of around $13,500 a year. More than half are elderly or disabled, and most of those who can work, do.

For 2.9 million poor households—including seniors on fixed income, people with disabilities, and the working poor—getting rental assistance means everything. It improves access to the health care they need, prevents childhood lead poisoning, ends homelessness, and supports people in maintaining or increasing employment. Without assistance from HUD and the USDA, however, every 100 poor renter households would be competing for just 21 homes that fit their budget. The rest would risk eviction or disastrous trade-offs.

The federal government has long played a role in addressing poverty by offering a safety net and an opportunity for households to get a foothold on the economic ladder and then climb. A continued investment in proven solutions, such as rental assistance, helps every US county offer opportunities for its people and communities to grow and thrive.