Employment alone isn’t enough to solve homelessness, study suggests

New findings could offer better data for policymakers seeking to fix social safety net

More than half of people residing in homeless shelters in the United States had formal earnings in the same year they were homeless, according to a new study that deepens understanding of housing insecurity in the U.S.

Among unhoused individuals who were not in shelters, about 40% had earnings from formal employment. The findings contrast with common perceptions and stereotypes about people who are homeless—suggesting that even consistent work isn’t enough to help Americans facing skyrocketing housing costs.

Led by Prof. Bruce D. Meyer, a preeminent scholar of U.S. poverty, the research offers the first highly accurate snapshot of those experiencing homelessness across the country and examines factors such as labor market attachment, geographic mobility, earnings, population characteristics and safety net usage.

“People experiencing homelessness are among the most deprived individuals in the United States, yet they are neglected in official poverty statistics and other surveys,” said Meyer, the McCormick Foundation Professor at Harris Public Policy. “As a result, policymakers and others interested in understanding this overlooked and at-risk population have never had complete or reliable information from which to guide decision-making until now.”

The new study is the first in a series of planned reports on homelessness from the Comprehensive Income Dataset (CID) Project, an effort to build the most accurate dataset on economic well-being ever created for the United States. To better understand the homeless population specifically, the researchers constructed an unprecedented dataset—a census of the entire U.S. homeless population in 2010 linked with individual-level administrative data on government benefits and tax records.

Key findings from the analysis include: 

  • More than half of the sheltered homeless adult population under age 65 worked at some point in 2010, while a still substantial 40% of the unsheltered homeless population worked.
  • The vast majority of individuals who experience homelessness receive government benefits. Among adults under 65, 89% of those in homeless shelters and 78% of those unsheltered received benefits from SNAP (food stamps), veterans benefits, housing assistance, Medicare or Medicaid at some point in 2010.
  • Even after spells of homelessness end, financial circumstances for people who experience homelessness tend not to improve for an extended period of time—often for at least a decade. In every year between 2005 and 2015, less than half of adults under 65 experiencing sheltered homelessness in 2010 had more than $2,000 of annual earnings, and less than a quarter had more than $12,000 of annual earnings.
  • Individuals experiencing homelessness move across state lines very infrequently. Ninety percent of sheltered homeless adults under 65 live in the same state in which they lived the year previously, and 55% of sheltered homeless adults under 65 live in the same state in which they were born.
  • Individuals who experience homelessness face relatively high rates of disability. Nearly one quarter (24%) of sheltered homeless adults under age 65 report difficulty remembering or making decisions, twice the rate among a comparison group of non-homeless individuals.

“The sometimes surprising findings that result from our analysis underscore the importance of quality data to create policies to understand and combat social ills,” Meyer said. “The social safety net and other programs and policies cannot be well-designed if policymakers do not have accurate information and insights to understand the problem, and instead rely on common assumptions.”  

The paper was co-authored by Harris doctoral students Angela Wyse and Derek Wu; a Census Bureau demographer, Carla Medalia; and a pre-doctoral researcher, Alexa Grunwaldt.

The Comprehensive Income Dataset is expected to power a new generation of evidence-based policymaking by providing a highly accurate understanding of deprivation and economic disparities in the United States. For more information, visit the CID website.

—This story was first published by the Harris School of Public Policy.