What Cities Can Do to Make America Move Again

Americans instinctively know that sometimes, in order to move up, you have to move out. And moving from one place to another has long been a key element of upward mobility in the nation.

Yeah, not so much anymore. America has become a nation of homebodies. And it’s not doing the economy, or America’s urban centers, a lot of good.

The ‘Go West, young man!’ ethic knitted into America’s DNA has apparently been lost on the young people. In fact, the few people who are moving around the country are retirees, not the scrappy young upstarts looking for a great new opportunity.

It’s a problem, says author Ryan Streeter, former deputy policy chief for then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, because cities are creating “policy disincentives” that make it harder for young people to take a chance on a new start.

These include locally administered public benefits, health insurance and licensure requirements that make moving too much of a hassle.

Americans traditionally have been able to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers, relocating to new cities to test their mettle. Unfortunately, those cities are being sustained with the savings of older Americans, not young people seeking new opportunity.

Nine of the 20 fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country are retirement destinations in which deaths outnumber or roughly equal births.”

Working-class Americans who seek opportunities should be rewarded with the ability to relocate to pursue them. But the “barriers of entry,” like relocation costs and high taxes, makes moving to new cities too tough to tackle.

The interplay of supply and demand with increasingly restrictive policies in growing cities tends to raise the barriers of entry to a city over time. It should be no surprise, then, that highly educated people with higher incomes are more likely to move to faster growing cities than people with lower levels of income and education.”

So how does America change this trend to make the perks that residents in the fastest-growing cities enjoy available to low and middle income workers?

Streeter says don’t turn to the federal government to solve this one.

No national policy can fix the fact that too few cities in the country combine economic dynamism with affordability.”

Instead, think local:

(I)t falls to municipal leaders to limit restrictive land-use and housing policies, ensure that good schools are widely distributed, and provide amenities in a safe environment that can be enjoyed by all classes of people.”

Pioneering America’s fastest growing cities is an important component of our country’s future. If local leaders and taxpayers are serious about sustaining the growth and building it with strong, working hands, they need to find ways to limit the barriers of entry and make these places accessible to working families. Just as the expansion of the West led to incredible and unforeseen prosperity, the contributions of today’s pioneers raise the potential to flourish, if cities allow them to do so.

Vast Array of Government Assistance Programs Ready for a Reboot

Reducing poverty is one of the biggest issues that TPOH discusses, with good reason. The expression that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is especially true in a liberal democratic society that values a free market. However, despite a vast array of government assistance programs, it doesn’t seem the tide is lifting the poverty blues.

For many Americans, the elusive path to success has not been found, and the promise of upward mobility has not felt like a reality for many families stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. Various polls show that efforts to reduce poverty and expand opportunity are lacking. In an AEI/Los Angeles Times poll, 70 percent of Americans said they believe the conditions for the poor had either stayed the same or gotten worse over the past 10 or 15 years. A study by Pew Charitable Trusts found that 43 percent of Americans born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain there as adults.

Sadly, more than 20 percent of children lived in poverty in 2014.

Of course, the poverty rate is a flawed metric because it does not consider a significant amount of government-provided assistance that raises families’ incomes above the poverty line. On top of that, people in poverty are living with less material hardship than 50 years ago. The poor today are better off materially than in the past.

But as Robert Doar, the former commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, the city’s agency for managing 12 public assistance programs, notes in the introduction to a new volume of essays on reducing poverty in America, government assistance has helped people live with more stuff, but government has not created the outlets to get people working or earning on their own.

This is the cause of that swirling dissatisfaction even among those recipients of government benefits. More than half of people living in poverty surveyed in The AEI/Los Angeles Times poll said that the main purpose of welfare programs should be to help the poor get on their own two feet.

Able-bodied adults need to work because steady employment almost always leads a family out of poverty, provides opportunities for upward mobility, and is a source of dignity and purpose. Children are best off when they are raised by two committed parents, which is most likely to happen in marriage. And society must maintain a safety net that reduces material hardship, ensures that children can be raised in healthy environments, and rewards individuals who work.

The volume of essays offers ways to turn good ideas into legislative reform. The volume covers poverty assistance programs from housing and child support to food stamps and welfare. Doar acknowledges that none of the authors present all the answers, but he notes that the analyses and proposals can help move America toward finally living up to the goals of the War on Poverty, a war that needs to be won if everyone is going to do better.

Of course, not all of the problems facing low-income Americans will be solved by federal antipoverty programs. But political reality dictates that these major programs are not going to disappear anytime soon, meaning leaders who are serious about helping poor Americans should learn how they work and develop an agenda for improving them. Moreover, many of these assistance programs do reduce poverty and, with thoughtful reform, could be even more effective in helping struggling Americans move up. This volume intends to help policymakers understand how each program functions—its strengths, as well as its weaknesses.

Download the book in PDF form.

Why Don’t Families With Housing Vouchers Move to Better School Districts?

If you have a housing voucher that you’re allowed to use anywhere, why wouldn’t you situate yourself near a good school for your kids? That’s the question that a new study dives into after learning that “voucher holders do not, on average, use their vouchers to reach better schools.”

Housing choice voucher programs, which have been around for more than 40 years, cost the taxpayers $19 billion a year. They provide assistance to approximately 2.2 million households, which include over 2.5 million children. The program has been in existence for 40-plus years. Studies suggest that kids in housing voucher programs who go to better schools end up better off in the long run.

Obviously, not every voucher holder cares about the school district where they live.

They may instead use their subsidy to move out of overcrowded living situations (Wood, Turnham, & Mills, 2008), write down rent burdens, find larger, higher quality homes (Mills et al., 2006; Rosenblatt & DeLuca, 2012), relocate to neighborhoods with lower crime (Lens, Ellen, & O’Regan, 2011), or satisfy other household demands. Certainly voucher holders without school-age children have little motivation to consider school quality in location decisions. And the long waiting lists for vouchers may, in practice, mean that many voucher holders receive their vouchers after their children have already started school. These voucher holders with children who are already enrolled in school at the time of voucher receipt have to weigh the potential benefits of a new neighborhood against the potential negative effect of school mobility (Chetty, Hendren, & Katz, 2015; DeLuca & Rosenblatt, 2010). Thus, only a subset of households are likely to be motivated by a voucher to move toward better schools: those with young children starting school soon.

So for those families with school-age children, what’s the explanation why their parents don’t move to better schools, especially considering that the vouchers are usually substantial enough to enable them to live in nicer neighborhoods?

Evidently, timing is everything.

We find that families with vouchers are more likely to move toward a better school in the year before their oldest child meets the eligibility cutoff for kindergarten, suggesting salience matters. Further, the magnitude of the effect is larger in metropolitan areas with a relatively high share of affordable rental units located near high-performing schools and in neighborhoods in close proximity to higher-performing schools. To be sure, the effects we find are not large, but they suggest that voucher holders do, indeed, move toward better schools when schools are salient and accessible.

In other words, if the kids are ready for school, then the parents pay more attention to the quality of schools near available rental properties.

Even so, voucher holders with school-ready kids may still neglect the search because better schools are farther away and the area is unfamiliar. For many parents, uprooting kids from their communities may be unpalatable, even for those with kids in lower-performing schools. Another potential barrier is the competition in those housing markets — nicer neighborhoods are in higher demand, and finding an affordable rental is difficult at the price permitted by HUD.

And while the voucher program may intend to help families with children move to higher-performing school systems, targeting those families is tough because the waiting list for vouchers, particularly in metro areas, are so long that kids are no longer at eligibility age by time the family receives a voucher.

The study noted that voucher holders who are not facing the time pressure of locating a place, a crunch that occurs usually for first-time voucher recipients, eventually end up in lower poverty neighborhoods with better schools during subsequent moves.

The research looked at 1.4 million housing choice voucher holders in 15 states, and compared it against data from 5,841 different districts to compare the quality of schools.

Read the housing choice voucher report here.

Pittsburgh Most Affordable Metro Area for Home Buyers: Where Does Your City Rank?

You can buy a median-priced home in Pittsburgh living on a household salary of $32,390 if you put 20 percent down. You’d need five times that to afford a median-priced home in San Francisco, according to HSH.com, a housing market research firm.

The extremes are not too surprising, The least affordable metro regions for home buyers are all in California — San Diego and Los Angeles are the next most expensive towns after San Francisco.

But buying a home is becoming more difficult in most metro areas. That’s because home values are on the rise, which is a good sign for the economy, but a drag if you’re looking for a bargain. At the same time, while prices went higher in the second quarter of 2016 over the first quarter, mortgage rates dropped across the country, making it easier to afford more home.

HSH did a comparison to determine how much salary you need to buy a home in 27 metro areas. Pittsburgh came in lowest, with a median-priced home at $140,500 — though prices went up from first quarter to second quarter this year. That’s true also in Pittsburgh rival city, Cleveland, which is the second most affordable city despite increases in prices of 24 percent. For Cleveland, buyers need $34,434 annually to buy a home priced at $138,100 with 20 percent down. Cincinnati ranked third with a 17 percent hike in home prices and an average home price of $160,600. A household salary would need to be $37,179 to get a home in Cincinnatti with 20 percent down.

If you’re looking to move to a city that just became more affordable — in other words, home prices dropped — check Florida. Orlando, Tampa, and Miami are the only three cities where prices went down.

The national average salary needed to buy a home is $52,699.17, which is about what it costs to afford a median-priced home in Houston. If you want to buy a home in San Francisco, you need a $161,947.60 salary in order to afford a median-priced home of $885,600.

Of course, putting 20 percent down makes buying a home easier, but the International Center on Housing Risk notes that few first-time home buyers do. In June, 72 percent of first-time home buyers put a down payment of 5 percent or less, and 22 percent of first-time buyers had subprime credit (a score below 660), which means they’re not getting the best mortgage rate out there.  It’s clear that avoiding a housing crisis means not stretching the dollar too far.

Trying to find a bargain? Here’s a list of the metro areas HSH reviewed. HSH also produced a great interactive display so buyers can look through cities to see quarterly changes and decide where they might like to move.