The Folly and Tragedy of Section 8, by Mychal Massie

While traveling through a part of my community dominated by “Section 8” government-subsidized housing, I came across a group of seemingly out-of-place college students.

Approaching them, I discovered they were performing community service by picking up trash in front of the once well-maintained row houses that were converted into low-income apartments.

While these kids from outside of the area were hard at work, I observed many Section 8 tenants lounging on their porches and steps, often holding a cigarette and beverage of choice. They simply watched the students work. They didn’t try to help.

I asked a few of the students why the local residents weren’t helping and if that bothered them. Not surprisingly, one of them said he saw no reason why they should. He felt that it was the least that they, as privileged college students from an expensive university, could do. Two other members of the group, however, told me they shared my sentiments.

It all reminded me of a short but heated debate I once had with a friend who is a landlord. Not surprisingly, he favors Section 8 housing. I do not.

I see the need for some sort of housing safety net as an option of last resort, but my friend wanted it to be available to literally everyone. I further believe that the focus of any assistance program should be getting people out of the program, and that means homeownership in this case. People who own property tend to take better care of their surroundings. Ownership also gives people a vested stake in their communities, juxtaposed with the nonchalance of living on the government’s dime.

In today’s marketplace, it seems even dead people can get mortgages. There are mortgage plans for people with bad credit, no credit and with or without a down payment. But the coup de grace was when I said I did not want Section 8 housing in my neighborhood.

That was all my landlord friend could handle – his outburst rivaled Mt. Vesuvius.

I was cast as someone who had forgotten where I had come from – that I now saw myself as too good to be living with, or even near, the less fortunate.

That may be partially true, but not for the reason my friend argued. Life before my 10th birthday could be considered “cushy,” but it became anything but that after my mother’s nervous breakdown during that year. Yet, without fear of contradiction, I can say my teen years were among the best in my life.

We were poor by today’s definitions, but our family and those surrounding us had two very important advantages those on Section 8 do not.

For one thing, everyone in my mother’s family owned property and owned their homes. Another was that no one told us we were poor. Everyone was treated alike. There were no special provisions to help smooth over poor decisions and irresponsibility.

I grew up watching men take care of their families and their homes. I grew up hearing them talk about property taxes and other ownership-related issues. My dreams were always about what I could achieve based on my ability and willingness to work. In my mind, success or failure lay with me.

Section 8 housing programs do not inspire ownership, even though there are programs meant to do so. There is a stigma of inequality, poverty, and dependence associated with it. As I saw that day with the college students, it doesn’t even inspire recipients to take care of the yards and streets around them. They simply wait for someone to do it for them.

Despite good intentions, Section 8 and other government-subsidized programs do not help people. They actually hinder them. Section 8 may put a roof over a family’s head, but, in the overwhelming majority of instances, a roof without incentive is a path to becoming wards of the government.

It is a tragic indictment that, in a climate of free schools, scholarships, five percent unemployment and lending programs tailored for any buyer, so many working-age people would rather be government wards and political pawns than be self-sufficient.

As for my friend’s comments about me, there were no silver spoons in my mouth. But I was equipped with a model for success because of how I was raised. My response to him was, and still is: “Why would anyone work to succeed so they could live in an economically depressed neighborhood? Wouldn’t one measure of self-sufficiency be working to get out of it?”

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Mychal Massie is the chairman of the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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