In his talk “Austerity and Inequality: A Potentially Fateful Linkage,” John Goering, professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center and Public Affairs at Baruch College, shared research he is presently conducting with colleague Christine Whitehead, Professor of Housing Economics at the London School of Economics. This project examines the contexts, contents and outcomes of austerity policies implemented in the United States and the United Kingdom since 2010. The opportunity for this research knocked in an unusual way – the authors found their proposals to conduct research in public housing authorities unexpectedly denied due to looming budget cuts, the result of new austerity policies. Recognizing the importance of the moment and the opportunity afforded by the parallel situations in the U.S. and the U.K., Goering and Whitehead launched a comparative study of the impact of austerity on housing in the two countries. Like the austerity policies themselves, this research is still unfolding.
One of the early results of this research suggests that austerity policies in the U.S. and U.K., while commencing nearly simultaneously, differ significantly in the political climate and political discourses that surround them. For instance, in the U.K., national debt has been an explicit issue in recent campaigns, but has had less political traction in the United States. Also, while the U.K. has enacted a mixture of tax policies, including both tax cuts and tax increases, political opposition has prevented virtually any increase in taxes in the U.S. In the U.S., Goering noted, austerity policies were enacted in a climate of growing distrust of government. In a 2015 Gallup poll, nearly half of Americans agreed that “the federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens,” up from 30% in 2003.[i] Austerity policies in the United States must be understood in light of this anti-government sentiment.
Goering and Whitehead’s interest in austerity policies follows on longstanding engagements with issues of housing. In both the U.S. and the U.K., housing programs have been heavily impacted by austerity measures, despite ongoing shortages of affordable housing. In the U.K., where public housing programs have touched a broader spectrum of lower and middle class households, lifelong tenancy rights to public housing have been reduced to five year leases. Similar policies are being tested in the U.S. on a smaller scale. Austerity policies in the U.S. have also spelled the end of federal funding for housing for the elderly and disabled, and existing public housing authorities have seen a sharp decline in funds available for maintenance of existing properties. In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is experimenting with various forms of privatization, especially through its Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance program.
While many scholars have highlighted the negative impacts of austerity policies on low income households, Goering’s research suggests these policies may worsen more than just gaps in income and wealth. They are also positioned to further widen racial inequality. In the U.S., decades of discriminatory policies and practices have led to significant racial disparities in home ownership and have entrenched racial segregation in residential areas across the country. Anti-integrationist opposition and violence continue to enforce racial boundaries and limit opportunities for households of color. While austerity policies may not contain the explicitly discriminatory dimensions of the policies of decades past, they are implemented in a context already profoundly shaped by racial inequality. While federal policies that benefit homeowners have remained largely sheltered from austerity policies, the budget cuts to housing programs continue to impact rental markets for low and middle income families. In this context, it seems inevitable that the burdens of austerity will fall unevenly across racial as well as class divides.
With this bleak vision of growing inequality, what can be done to work toward more equitable and secure housing today? Goering’s modest policy suggestions – tax credits, rental vouchers and repairs to existing public housing – are virtual pipe dreams the contemporary political climate of the United States. As Goering and Whitehead point out, both the public and the government have found austerity preferable to policies that would de-concentrate wealth. The question then becomes more difficult: is a shift in political momentum possible, or is increasing austerity and deepening inequality an inevitability of history?
[i] Frank Newport. “Half in U.S. Continue to Say Gov’t Is an Immediate Threat.” Gallup, 21 Sept. 2015, www.gallup.com/poll/185720/half-continue-say-gov-immediate-threat.aspx/