Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Brain Science, Mentoring, and Incentives: A New Approach to Promoting Economic Mobility Among Recipients of Housing Subsidies

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 2:25 PM
Miami Lecture Hall (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

James Riccio, MDRC and Michael L Wiseman, George Washington University
HUD’s housing subsidy programs serve some of the lowest income families in America.  Although roughly half of assisted tenants work, many work only part time, inconsistently, and/or in low-wage jobs, and many rely heavily on other government transfer programs in addition to housing subsidies. They usually have difficulty earning their way off their housing subsidies, and children in those families typically grow up in poverty. 

Evidence on the effectiveness of employment initiatives in increasing earnings and reducing family poverty for subsidized tenants remains quite thin. A few strong impact evaluations have shown that some interventions can increase their employment and earnings relative to the performance of appropriate control groups.  But studies also show that some programs have not worked at all, or have improved labor market outcomes for particular subgroups only.  Moreover, positive effects that have been achieved have been modest in absolute terms, with limited effectiveness in reducing tenants’ reliance on housing subsidies or other government transfers. 

Past results demonstrate the importance of attempting much bolder innovations.  This paper will discuss a new demonstration project, called Bridge to Family Self-Sufficiency (BridgeFSS), that represents one such approach.  BridgeFSS uses an adaptation of an intervention strategy, Mobility Mentoring®, developed by the Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU).  Mobility Mentoring is designed to help low-income individuals secure and retain jobs paying family-sustaining wages, reduce their reliance on benefits, and improve their financial security. Mentors use an innovative coaching model that is informed by recent brain science research showing that poverty can impair individuals’ executive functioning and ability to set and achieve goals and contend effectively with multiple challenges simultaneously. The coaches help participants build capacity to establish and work toward progressively more demanding goals in five domains considered essential to economic success:  family stability, well-being, education and training, financial management and asset-building, and employment.  The intervention also makes extensive use of financial incentives tied to achievement of a wide variety of goals that participants set with their coaches across the domains. 

Like HUD’s Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program, BridgeFSS aims to work with participants for up to five years, by which time they are expected to secure jobs paying family-sustaining wages and become independent of or less reliant on government subsidies – or on a path toward achieving those outcomes. In addition to the mobility coaching, the program offers assistance from service specialists have content expertise in each of the domains and who can make referrals, as appropriate, to other specialist service providers in the community. 

BridgeFSS will be carefully tested in a random assignment experiment involving subsidized tenants who receive housing vouchers or live in Section 8 or public housing in Boston or Newton, Massachusetts.  The test will show whether this more intensive and expensive intervention succeeds, as hoped, in producing more dramatic impacts than past efforts.  The paper will discuss the theory behind the model, the model design, the evaluation strategy, and the relevance of this test for the evidence base on housing self-sufficiency programs, as well as for employment policy more broadly.

Full Paper: