From City Journal:
...if you think that America no longer encourages long-term dependency or underclass poverty, you haven’t been paying attention to public housing. Like cash welfare before the reform, public housing is dominated by extremely poor single-parent families (53 percent of public-housing households nationwide earn less than $10,000 a year, and only 13 percent have two adult residents). Like welfare, public housing offers recipients a disincentive to marry: because rents are fixed at 30 percent of household income, there’s good reason not to put a second wage earner on the lease. And like welfare, public-housing projects—and the closely related voucher programs run by housing authorities—impose neither a work requirement nor a time limit on recipients. So not only do 2.2 million people live in public-housing units in America; they spend an average of more than eight years in them. And dwarfing their ranks are the 5 million living in private, voucher-paid housing, where the average length of residency is six years.
In short, American housing policy encourages the formation of households in which low-income single women raise children—exactly the sort of homes where kids’ prospects are bleakest. Crime rates, moreover, are consistently high in and around public housing, and voucher units have been widely implicated in the spread of social problems to formerly safe areas. The problem is financial, as well: housing vouchers alone, which didn’t even exist until 1974, now cost taxpayers $18 billion, more than the $16.9 billion that we spend on welfare. And it’s a policy that disproportionately affects the African-American poor. Nearly 45 percent of public-housing tenants are black, as are 42 percent of voucher recipients.
All this makes what Renee Glover is doing in Atlanta so important. Since 1994, Glover, a child of Jim Crow–era Jacksonville, Florida, has led the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA)—the nation’s fifth-largest public-housing system, with 50,000 tenants and voucher recipients, 99 percent of them, like her, African-American. She has drawn national recognition for the fact that during her tenure, Atlanta became the first city in the United States to tear down virtually all its projects. But Glover’s plan is far more ambitious than demolition: she has set out to transform the dysfunctional behavior that condemns people to languish for years in public housing. Her approach is the most dramatic change in any city’s public-housing system since Franklin Roosevelt created the program in 1937.
Glover’s tool kit includes much more than demolition, construction, and the work requirement, as complex and unusual as they are. Her least-known but most ambitious effort is what she unabashedly calls “human transformation,” an effort to instill in the public-housing poor the habits needed to join the social and economic mainstream. Glover’s memory of her childhood in the segregated South inspires the program. “We had a very strong and very strongly knitted community,” she recalls. “There was never a day that passed that we didn’t hear that we were being prepared to be the next leaders of the country.”
To re-create that culture of ambition and discipline, the AHA has invested nearly $27 million in what amounts to intensive counseling for public-housing tenants. The counselors—twenty-first-century versions of the Victorian “friendly visitors” who sought to encourage independence among the poor—follow the relocated tenants to their new homes and check up on them there, verifying that they’re employed or in school. They try to teach them the things that most Americans learn from their families: how to get a job and then get a better one; why it’s important to meet your children’s teachers and go to PTA meetings; how to live frugally and save for the future. It’s a striking example of what political scientist Lawrence Mead calls “the new paternalism.”