It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote, more than 50 years ago, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age.” Yet poverty continues, and quite often it’s children who feel the curse the most. One in three poor people in the United States is a child.
This summer, a Bangor grandfather had nowhere else to go with the four grandchildren he is raising but a Toyota Sienna minivan and, when that became too expensive, a smaller Toyota Avalon sedan. As captured in a recent Bangor Daily News story, they slept sitting up in their car seats for about six months as the 52-year-old grandfather called nearly 100 landlords, looking for someone to take them in. Lawrence Bergeron had a federally subsidized housing voucher. He could pay for a four-bedroom apartment. All he needed was a place to pass a required inspection and accept the family.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that housing is key to ending child poverty. The Children’s Defense Fund made this point clear in its “ Ending Child Poverty Now” report, published in 2015. It modeled what would happen if the U.S. pursued certain policies to eradicate child poverty. Expanding housing subsidies had the single largest impact among the nine policies studied.
The analysis found child poverty would decline by 20.8 percent — lifting 2.3 million children out of poverty — if the following occurred: housing subsidies were granted to families with income below 150 percent of the official poverty line who were not already receiving housing assistance and for whom rent exceeded 50 percent of their income. The model also assumed 70 percent of eligible families would be able to use the vouchers, given many people don’t find housing within program time limits.
Currently housing subsidies reach only one in four eligible families with children. It’s doubtful that there’s the political will to expand housing subsidies right now. But the point is that the country knows what works and chooses not to act. It’s the same apathy that likely contributed to Bergeron’s long search for housing for him and the four children in his care. He spoke about expressing interest in an apartment, only to lose it to another renter who could pay in cash, or he would be told the unit would not pass an inspection.
His situation got so bad he stopped telling landlords he would be paying with a voucher, just to get a showing. In the handful of times it got that far and Bergeron then brought up the voucher, the landlord suddenly rented the place to someone else, he said. The process left him suspecting something he couldn’t prove: That people didn’t want to rent to someone on public assistance. They didn’t know Bergeron’s story, that he’s raising his four grandchildren because his daughter died of cancer in 2015, and his son died of a drug overdose two years prior. They were both single parents.
Living in a car — showering at the YMCA, eating cold cuts and waking up covered in sweat from the hot summer — was never something Bergeron wanted for his grandchildren. They bore everything with resilience, he said, but he still worries about their future. “It’s weird how things will trigger [tears],” Bergeron said. “The smell of a flower, a car, something on television.”
In the end, it’s landlords’ choice to rent to someone. They can’t express overt discrimination, but they are largely allowed to pick the tenant they want. And this is where public programs depend on the private sector. They require property owners to make, sometimes, a compassionate decision. Ending homelessness and child poverty comes down not just to policies and money, but individuals’ choices to let someone in.