Families who receive federal housing subsidies are among the poorest and most disadvantaged households in the United States. The federal government helps over two million of these families meet their monthly rental needs, primarily through public housing and housing vouchers. In addition, the public housing system is used to encourage work, increase earnings, and provide families with pathways out of poverty.

For more than 20 years, MDRC has designed and evaluated strategies that use the housing subsidy system as a platform for promoting economic self-sufficiency—specifically, interventions that provide employment-focused supports and services and work-based rent incentives. Here are some elements to consider, based on MDRC’s experience implementing and evaluating different types of mobility interventions.

Confront the challenge of creating meaningful and sustained engagement. A common pattern in employment-focused interventions is that engagement tapers off early in the program, leaving a smaller share of people who actually take part in and benefit from the full array of services offered. Finding ways to keep all types of participants engaged and figuring out how not to lose those who have disengaged should be an important program objective.

Focus on job advancement, not just on getting a job. Employment is common among families receiving housing subsidies, but low-wage work and high levels of underemployment are often the norm, leaving large numbers of households with incomes close to the poverty line. Employment programs need to be deliberate and intentional about advancement—helping individuals build on existing skills, develop new ones, and connect to sector-specific job opportunities.

Address the wide variety of needs in the assisted housing population. Large segments of people who receive housing assistance and are not in the labor force face steep barriers to employment, including limited work-related credentials, personal health issues, transportation and child care access issues, and other caregiving responsibilities. Programs that do not address these barriers are likely to show few, if any, economic gains for these types of individuals.

Include structured coaching and case management strategies. Structured coaching may be more effective than traditional case management approaches in helping participants establish employment goals and navigate challenges they encounter along the way.

Support advancement by helping housing voucher recipients thrive in opportunity neighborhoods. A new wave of housing mobility initiatives, including those led by MDRC, are being launched around the country. Most of them are prioritizing services to help families find affordable housing in higher-opportunity neighborhoods. Few such initiatives, however, offer extensive post-move services to help families settle into their new neighborhoods, build community connections, and use their new communities as launching pads for improving their economic status.

The pandemic has launched the country into uncharted territory, and growing numbers of families with low incomes are facing the dire consequences of the sharp economic downturn. More will be needed from programs designed to improve these families’ economic well-being and support their advancement. The lessons from decades of innovation and evidence-based research are even more relevant today.

Read the full article about housing subsidies by Nandita Verma at MDRC.