New pandemic-relief funds would also prevent violence

At the same time, Congress left town this month without coming to a deal on another coronavirus relief package that would extend (or modify) the $600-per-week unemployment bonus checks that have been keeping many Americans afloat. The original Cares Act also provided some $9 billion in grants to local governments for emergency financial assistance — typically rental aid or interventions to help homeless people.

Much of the discussion of the loss of those benefits has focused on helping families pay for necessities, but material deprivation isn’t the only issue: Research we helped conduct shows that grants and aid that help families cope with financial emergencies lead to reductions in violent crime — particularly assault and battery. People offered one-time payments in Chicago — typically $300 to $900 to help pay rent — were 55 percent less likely to be arrested for a violent crime one or two years after the payment than those denied payment.

That such payments might prevent violence makes intuitive sense: A lost job can lead to added stress, overcrowded housing, excess alcohol and complicated relationships — such as unfamiliar new roommates — that give rise to conflict. Financial stress also may cause people to think less about long-term consequences in favor of immediate needs and grievances.

But our research team was able to buttress the case for a genuinely causal connection between financial assistance and a drop in violence. We did so by following more than 8,000 people who sought assistance from the Homelessness Prevention Call Center in Chicago, from January 2010 into April 2013. The call center connects people who it determines can be helped by one-time payments to local private and governmental groups that can provide such help. But since the resources of those groups rise and fall, depending on the timing of grants and donations, there’s an element of arbitrariness to who gets helped. Some people in desperate situations got payments while very similar people in desperate situations did not. In studies with our colleagues at the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame, we compared those two groups.

In one study, we looked at homeless shelter entry records from Chicago’s Homeless Management Information System and found that people offered assistance were 76 percent less likely to enter homeless shelters than those who were not. Perhaps more surprising, in a follow-up study, drawing on Chicago Police Department records, we found that they were less than half as likely to commit violent crimes — mostly assault and battery. We also found that people who did not get funding were arrested more often for crimes related to homelessness, including trespassing — another sign that evictions are a root cause of violence.

Homicides are too rare to establish cause-and-effect relationships in a study of the size we did. But while homicide rightfully captures attention due its high stakes, assaults are 30 times more common; and reducing overall violent crime depends on preventing this everyday form of violence.

The need for emergency rental assistance exceeded capacity even before the pandemic struck. According to data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, 2 percent of all renters were evicted in 2016. That figure will surely spike as cities and states end their coronavirus-related eviction moratoriums. While funds given to people in precarious situations have increased during the pandemic, it has not been enough to meet these needs.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition, a national advocacy organization, has identified nearly 200 state and local assistance programs created or expanded in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet of those, 30 percent have closed and at least half ration assistance, either on a first-come, first-served basis or by lottery. “We had planned to serve 1,500 people this year and we’ve already received 32,000 requests for help,” said Jennifer Loving, chief executive officer of Destination: Home, which provides emergency assistance in Santa Clara County, Calif.

The people we studied in Chicago may not have been exactly representative of the millions of Americans who have been receiving aid of various sorts under the Cares Act. They lived in a single city, typically in low-income neighborhoods and were on the brink of being evicted. And we studied a particular kind of financial intervention: a one-time grant intended to resolve a temporary crisis — aid that’s much smaller, and of shorter duration, than extended unemployment benefits.

Nonetheless, the study suggests that policymakers concerned about crime ought to seriously consider providing resources to help people experiencing financial emergencies, especially those that could lead to eviction. A broad relief package that includes an unemployment bonus would be best, but even if Congress and the president can’t come to an agreement on this, they should issue a second wave of support to the network of groups that provide one-time emergency payments. Preventing homelessness is reason enough to provide such aid. But if the prospect of a wave of evictions leaves some lawmakers unmoved, they should think of the federal support as a crime-prevention measure.

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