For many of these families, the issue isn’t that they don’t qualify for help. It’s that the help they need isn’t available. That’s because unlike some other parts of the social safety net — such as food stamps — affordable housing is not an entitlement. Once the money appropriated by Congress runs out, the aid stops, no matter how much need there might be. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 3 in 4 renting families that qualify for government housing programs don’t receive any assistance.
The result has been a dramatic shift of resources away from cash assistance and toward spending on other programs. In 1998, nearly 60 percent of welfare spending was on cash benefits, categorized as “basic assistance.” By 2014, it was only about one-quarter of TANF spending. That shift has happened despite a burgeoning economics literature suggesting that direct cash transfers are in many cases the most efficient tool to fight poverty.