Episode 698: The Long Way Home : Planet Money Housing subsidies are often given out through a lottery. But why do we let random chance decide who gets help with the rent? We don't do that for food stamps or health care, so why housing?

Episode 698: The Long Way Home

Episode 698: The Long Way Home

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Keith Romer
Shanay Manson recently entered the West Hartford lottery for a Section 8 Tenant-Based Housing Choice Voucher.
Keith Romer

Most social programs in America work like this: if you qualify for assistance, you get it. Food stamps, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit all have their own criteria. But if you pass the threshold and fill out the application, the help is (supposed to be) yours. With housing though, that's not how it works. There are far more people who qualify than actually receive help. For subsidized housing vouchers, there is often a lottery. And your chances aren't good.

But why? The answer is partly about money and partly about history.

We talk about the "social safety net" as if it's one coherent thing. But Congress never sat down and figured out one best way to help the poor. Food stamps, for instance, started out as a way to prop up prices for farmers back in the 1930s. Public housing was a reward for the "worthy poor" and a jobs program for the construction industry.

On today's show: how chance became the deciding factor for help with housing. And just how lucky you have to be to win.

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