Economy & Business

In Worcester, Mass., Welfare That Works


In the midst of a political campaign season likely to focus on the issues of economic stagnation, a struggling middle class, and income inequality, the American people should take notice of how one Massachusetts town’s public-housing authority’s has found a new way of doing business that has led to astonishing, concrete results.

What kind of results?

‐Double the number of public-housing residents holding down a full-time job.

‐Triple the number of public-housing residents in school.

‐A 90 percent reduction of vice crime and an overall crime reduction of 60 percent in the city’s public-housing neighborhoods.

The stunning progress has been achieved through a program called “A Better Life,” run by the Worcester Housing Authority (WHA). The program has two central principles: 1) Residents must get a job or be in school to continue living in public housing, and 2) the residents will receive guidance and help toward achieving those benchmarks.

According to the WHA’s executive director, Ray Mariano, the overarching goal of A Better Life is quite simple (though far from easy), namely, to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

“Public housing is supposed to be transitional,” Mariano tells National Review. “There are families living in public housing that were here when I was a kid. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

That may not be how it’s supposed to work, but it often does work that way. Mariano, a former four-term mayor of Worcester, believes that America is in danger of creating a permanent underclass, out of sight of both Wall Street and Main Street: the people who live on Dead End Street.

“Public housing is supposed to be transitional. There are families living in public housing that were here when I was a kid. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

“A presidential election is coming up, and if the national unemployment rate hits 8 percent, that’s the only thing anyone will be talking about,” Mariano says. “But in public-housing neighborhoods, the unemployment rate can hit 80 percent and no one raises an eyebrow.”

That would be unacceptable on Main Street, Mariano points out, “so why is it acceptable in the projects?”

But A Better Life has run into serious roadblocks. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), after having given the go-ahead three separate times, quickly backtracked on having granted permission to the WHA to enforce the program by evicting residents (as a last resort).

“[HUD] asked us, ‘Who gave you permission to do this?’” Mariano says. “We said, ‘You did.’ The federal government has not been all that supportive.”

Worcester city councilor Michael Gaffney tells National Review that he, too, is disappointed by the federal response. “The federal authorities allowed the program initially. Quite frankly, they probably didn’t read the documents — which they signed off on.”

Due to the federal intransigence, the WHA has been able to implement the program only in public-housing units funded through the state rather than through HUD.

The origins of A Better Life date back to before 2012. Mariano, who knows a thing or two about public housing — he grew up in public housing in Massachusetts — directed his team in developing a public-housing model explicitly designed to help people change their lives. “We believe in our residents, our residents can be as successful as anyone else, but we hold them to high standards,” Mariano says. “We expect that they contribute. And then we help them get there.”

All able-bodied adults under the age of 55 in the program are required to work or attend school full time to be eligible to continue to receive housing assistance. Additionally, residents must complete the Life Skills 101 training program on subjects including financial literacy, conflict resolution, domestic violence, and parenting. Finally, the housing authority requires residents to participate in a five-part personal and family assessment with a case manager with the goal of creating what WHA calls a “Family Development Plan” — a roadmap to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

There was only one problem: In the trial phase, the housing authority couldn’t get 30 families to sign up. Five hundred letters were sent out to families on the public-housing waiting list to gauge interest — but only 6.7 percent agreed to enter the program.

“This program asks a lot out of people,” Mariano says. “In essence what many people said is ‘I’d rather be homeless.’”

When an incentive was added — families on the public-housing waiting list who agreed to sign up to A Better Life’s requirements were moved to the front of the line — hundreds of applicants entered the program.

A report from Boston University’s Department of Public Health Science on the program’s dramatic real-world results over its first three years said: “Taken as a whole, these results strongly suggest that the program may be having the desired impacts — regardless of whether participants enroll as volunteers or because of a mandate.” (The “mandate” referred to is the waiting-list incentive.) The report concluded that there was sufficient evidence to show that A Better Life’s standards were increasing “participants’ employment rates, educational attainment, income, and feelings of hope about the future in positive ways.”

#share#On the strength of early successes, the Worcester Housing Authority moved to implement the next phase of the program: require residents in all of the WHA’s 6,600 units to participate in A Better Life. With that, opposition dramatically increased. Complaints flooded in and, under pressure, HUD reversed course and withdrew its approval of WHA’s program.

City Councilor Gaffney rejects the basis of the complaints. “People say it’s discriminatory in some way — that this is going to make people go to work who legitimately can’t work. But that’s just not the case,” he says. “It’s the same old arguments, but the program is designed to make sure there are no excuses.”

The Worcester Housing Authority would like HUD to reconsider its prohibition on local public-housing authorities’ enforcing penalties, including eviction, on residents who fail to comply with work and school requirements. It would also like HUD to provide small federal seed-money grants to housing authorities willing to implement similar programs.

“This is more expensive than the normal public housing, yes,” Mariano admits. “But I can’t think of what would be a more important investment in both our economy and our democracy than breaking this cycle of dependency.”

Hard work might just be the key ingredient to ending the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

The Massachusetts state government, on the other hand, has been very enthusiastic, allowing WHA to enforce the A Better Life program in state-funded units. The newly elected Republican governor, Charlie Baker, and lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, have embraced the program, as have powerful Democratic politicians, including state-senate president Stanley Rosenberg.

“There is a crossover here because it makes sense,” says Gaffney, who is an independent. “Republicans want to make sure that resources aren’t being wasted and that assistance is temporary in nature. Democrats like social programs because they want to make sure people aren’t forgotten.

“It has crossover because it works — because it’s a good idea.”

Mariano, a lifelong Democrat, is pleased by the bipartisan support, perhaps especially since he blames both parties for the current troubled state of public housing.

“This is about hard work,” Mariano tells National Review. “[Governor] Charlie Baker, after reviewing the program, said to me, ‘Ray, this makes so much sense. Why isn’t everyone doing this?’

“I said, ‘Because it’s hard work.’”

The phrase “hard work” comes up frequently in discussions of A Better Life. “Can this happen at other housing authorities in other towns?” Gaffney wonders. “That’s a good question. That depends on whether competent leadership is present. Because this is hard work.”

But hard work might just be the key ingredient to ending the cycle of intergenerational poverty, especially as other towns begin to consider implementing versions of the Worcester model.

“When I was a kid, people said I would never leave the neighborhood,” Mariano says. “You know what: They were right. I’m still here, but now I have the keys to all the apartments!”

— Mark Antonio Wright is an assistant editor at National Review.



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