MOST OF the claimed accomplishments of the last congressional session were make-believe, but a few were real. An undersung example involves subsidized housing for the poor. The number of units was modestly increased for the second year in a row, after four years in which it had been frozen. Housing remains the cruelest cost for most poor households, and in the current political and fiscal climates even modest additions to the affordable stock are welcome gains.
The main form of subsidized housing is now a system of vouchers called Section 8, after its place in the law. The program was begun in the Nixon-Ford years as a way of reducing the government role in housing by subsidizing private rents instead of building public projects. The number of units expanded so fast in the 1970s that even Democrats began to worry about the accumulating cost. In the Reagan administration, Republicans tried to stop but succeeded only in slowing the expansion. Only after the election of the Republican Congress in 1994 was there a halt, now ended.
Opponents argued in freezing the programs that the entire subsidized housing effort had become dysfunctional, a poorly managed breeding ground for the very social problems it was meant to help solve. But (a) there were reforms and (b) the opponents were unable to think of real alternatives. Still, the program faces major funding problems. Most forms of federal aid to the poor are semiautomatic: If a household qualifies, it is helped. Not so with housing. Units are available for only about a third of those who are technically eligible, and funding depends on the annual and highly competitive appropriations process. Appropriations ostensibly are capped, the caps apply mainly to domestic programs as opposed to defense, and housing makes up a tenth of the domestic total.
The Clinton administration professes for political reasons to be in favor of the caps--who doesn't favor economy in government in the abstract?--even as it opposes their application. It claims to want more spending for such purposes as housing, education, biomedical research, etc., than the caps imply. It has dealt with the contradiction for the past couple of years by finessing the caps without acknowledging that it was doing so. You could argue that the resort to gimmicks proves (a) how artificial the caps are, or (b) how devious the administration is or (c) both. (C) is probably right.
Still, a further modest increase beats a further freeze. These are troubled but vital programs that are orphaned by the budget rules. It's good, in a year of so much posturing, to see the technicalities give way even marginally to the real-world need.