By Ralph da Costa Nunez
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
Half of all homeless parents in New York City shelters don’t have a high school diploma. In essence, this means they can’t read or write at a level required to get a decent job, permanently sentencing them to low-wage, dead-end jobs or, as is the case for many, no employment prospects at all.
Despite policy declarations and expectations, how can we expect a homeless mother to move on from shelter to a home of her own without a job that pays a decent wage? In truth, shelters have become places where family economic and social instability festers if opportunities are not made available. Today, when average length of stay is over a year and over half the families who leave shelter return, would it not make sense to address the gap in a parent’s education while they wait for a viable housing option to become available?
Irrespective of the competitive angling between the General Educational Development Test (GED) and New York’s newly introduced Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC), it’s clear that completing a high school equivalency degree makes sense for both homeless parents and the taxpayer. Studies of family literacy programs demonstrate that every dollar invested in adult literacy yields over $7 in higher incomes, tax contributions, reduced criminal justice expenses, and diminished reliance on public assistance. Those without a basic education are essentially relegated to being a permanent underclass — which is both an expensive prospect for the city and a stain on our conscience. An individual who doesn’t complete high school costs the city nearly $134,000, ironically for expenses like jail and shelter. On the other hand, those with a high school diploma or equivalency degree earn 65 percent more over a lifetime, providing a $193,000 benefit to the city. Education does pay, and can be the difference between residing in shelter or your own home.
Today there are about 12,000 homeless families in New York City. The cost of getting an equivalency degree is approximately $1,500 per individual. It would cost $9 million to provide all homeless parents currently lacking a high school degree with a basic literacy program. Doing nothing racks up a sunk cost of $804 million and a staggering waste of human potential. You don’t need to be an economist to see the return on investment.
Adults struggling with literacy are fighting the longstanding aftermath of an incomplete education on a daily basis — they might not be able to find directions to a new job, come up with a family budget that makes sense, or navigate their child’s school paperwork. In-shelter basic education programs allow access to much-needed resources and remove red tape often associated with outside programs.
There is no excuse to continue to allow parents to cycle in and out of the shelter system without arming them with the most fundamental tool for realizing their potential as individuals, citizens, and caretakers. It’s unrealistic to expect someone lacking literacy skills to wade into a grim job market and succeed. Why should taxpayers continue to throw good money after bad?
A basic education alone is not a permanent solution, but it’s an important stepping-stone to a long-term solution for low-skill workers. With it, homeless parents can consider enrolling in community college or applying for jobs for which they were previously unqualified. Investing in literacy skills gives homeless families a tremendous leg up when it comes to escaping homelessness and saves taxpayers millions of dollars. In-shelter high school adult education programs are a victory for everyone.
We have a unique opportunity to act now. We know who they are, where they are, what they are up against, and what services will make the most difference. Now what we need is bold leadership and common sense to make it happen. It’s time to read the writing on the wall, and make sure everyone can as well.
In the end, family homelessness isn’t simply about the need for housing; it’s also about the need and role of education in achieving that end.