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Lottery for the poor

Marketplace Staff Aug 22, 2006

Lottery for the poor

Marketplace Staff Aug 22, 2006


BRIAN WATT: It is the inclination social workers to help everyone, but when the needs of the poor overwhelm a limited budget, they have some tough choices to make. Who’s more deserving: a down-on-her-luck single mom, a bankrupt senior, or a disabled veteran? Could you decide? I couldn’t. Now, some places are distributing housing assistance based on a random lottery. Tom Banse reports on one group in Portland, Oregon.

TOM BANSE: Every month, hundreds of poor families desperate for help to avoid eviction call a non-profit in east Portland. The agency, Human Solutions, only has enough government funding to help about four percent of the callers. This office used to parcel out emergency rent assistance first-come, first-served. Social services director Erika Silver says a huge line would form at dawn on the first day of the month.

ERIKA SILVER:“What we found was that it wasn’t really fair to people, especially with disabilities or seniors that had a hard time standing in line.”

So in late 2004, the agency switched to a system where everyone has an equal chance: an old fashioned lottery.

Little slips of paper with a name and phone number get tossed in a plastic ice cream tub. This month, Silver does the honors.

[ Drawing the winner: “Liza, from Portland.”]

BANSE:“Do you think at all while you’re doing this about how happy you’re making some people?”

SILVER:“I tend to think more about the ones that we’re not picking than the ones that we are. Because you really hope that some of these ones that are left in the bucket won’t end up becoming homeless. But the reality is some of them probably will.”

This August, 162 families applied for emergency rent assistance. Silver drew just 20 names for a coworker to call back.

[ Calling winner: “Hello, may I speak to Liza, please. Hi Liza, I’m sorry. This is Edith calling from Human Solutions. . . ” ]

The woman on the other end of the line is a single mom. Liza Mikes says she lives paycheck-to-paycheck. The 44-year-old says she missed a lot of work hours this summer after she tore some ligaments. She’s getting better, but in the meantime, there’s no money for this month’s rent.

MIKES:“Well my hopes was up when they said that it was going to a drawing because I mean that’s a chance. You know, so, at first, I was like, ‘Wow. It’s going to be a lot of people.’ And then later on, I started feeling like, boy I got just as much a chance as everyone else.”

The most common way of dividing up scarce resources for the poor remains first-come, first served. You might ask, wouldn’t it be fairest to study and rank each case and give the aid to the most needy. Again, social services director Erika Silver.

SILVER:“Every situation is unique. It’s just too hard I think to figure out how to objectively maybe score people or something.”

More and more agencies are resorting to a random drawing. Public Housing Authorities from New York to California have started computerized lotteries. In western Montana, a bank was swamped with applicants for first-time homebuyer assistance. They chose the low-income recipients by a drawing.

The odds are better than the state lottery, but in these cases, count yourself lucky if you don’t need to play.

In Portland, Oregon, I’m Tom Banse for Marketplace.

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