New York City's Department of Homeless Services' Advantage program aims to assist families in making a permanent transition from shelter to self-sufficiency by providing a rent subsidy for one to two years once they leave shelter. To maintain their eligibility, Advantage program participants are required to work at least part time and contribute 30 percent of their gross monthly income toward rent in the first year, and if they qualify, 40 percent in the second year.
While receiving an Advantage subsidy is premised on a parent's ability to obtain and retain a job, without at least a high school equivalency diploma (known as the General Education Development Exam or GED), the road to gainful employment and self-sufficiency will be riddled with potholes. Homeless parents -- almost 50 percent of whom are high school dropouts -- require tools, such as a GED, to solidly begin down the road to self-sufficiency.
While funding Advantage is clearly better than having no significant subsidy in place, the city's housing policies must be linked to cost-effective investments in education. Even though a GED creates an avenue of opportunity for recipients and their families, overall less than 2% of New Yorkers without a high school diploma or GED take the exam each year.
Fortunately, the New York City Council recently launched a Back-to-School campaign to encourage New Yorkers to obtain a GED and participate in other free adult education classes. Ultimately, the initiative aims to improve New Yorkers' access to better jobs through education. However, while creating educational attainment opportunities for all New Yorkers yields benefits across the board, the Back-to-School program has the potential to provide homeless parents with a long-term advantage, not just a short-term subsidy.
Employment and Income Benefits of GEDs
Recent data demonstrate that obtaining a GED has employment and income benefits for all recipients. Nationally, high school dropouts who obtain a GED on average increase their earnings by $115 per week or $3,500 per year.
Even GED recipients who do continue to further their education are more likely to be employed full time than dropouts without the credential. Individuals with either a high school diploma or GED earn 33 percent ($7,000) more annually than high school dropouts without a GED -- New Yorkers with either credential earn 65 percent more over their lifetimes than they would with neither.
Most strikingly, female New Yorkers with either credential earn nearly 94 percent more over their lifetimes than those without. They are also more likely to exit poverty than women with lower educational attainment.
Moreover, during the recent economic downturn, New Yorkers with a high school diploma or a GED lost jobs at half the rate of those who did not have them. At a time when unemployment hovers at 9.1 percent in New York City, a GED becomes crucial to finding and retaining a job.
Meanwhile, a study issued by New York's Community Services Society reports that over a lifetime, a person without a high school diploma or GED represents at net fiscal cost of $134,000 to the city, whereas someone with either credential provides a net fiscal benefit of almost $193,000. A GED preparation course costs only about $1,000 per participant.
More than one-half of homeless heads of households lack a high school diploma or GED. These individuals are likely to have fewer job opportunities, work fewer hours, and earn lower wages than those with a high school diploma or GED. Without long-term steady employment, the probability of returning to homelessness greatly increases. A recent report noted that 40 percent of families seeking emergency shelter services have lived in New York City's shelter system at some point in the past.
If homeless parents are expected to achieve stability through work, the Advantage program must provide them with the tools to make this goal a reality. Because family shelters often provide child care and other wrap-around services, GED courses can be easily and effectively offered at shelters. Given the advantage to families of participating in a GED program, and the timely opportunity of the City Council's Back-to-School campaign, there is a unique opportunity for collaboration to turn shelters into tools that will benefit homeless families and taxpayers alike.