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WHILE WE'RE GETTING THEM OFF WELFARE, BETTER KICK 'EM OUT OF PUBLIC HOUSING, TOO

Once members of Congress get through crafting tax cuts that shower benefits on the well-off, they will congratulate themselves and turn their attention back to the poor.

That means the impoverished should enjoy this brief legislative interlude during which they are not the subjects of focus. Soon, they may remember this as the best of times.

They may come to relish this lack of attention in the budget talks as soon as Congress turns to the next great idea for "helping" them. After last year's welfare overhaul, the next step may be to place limits on how long poor people can live in public housing, the housing of last resort.

Following a certain Dickensian logic, proponents contend that if poor people can be kicked off of welfare after five years, it only makes sense that they should be kicked out of public housing at the same time.

The proposal is being floated in the wake of a bill already passed by the House that could make it tougher for those who need public housing the most to get it. Pitting the working poor and the lower middle class against the very poor, the measure would let local housing authorities change their residency guidelines to admit more of the former and exclude more of the latter.

The bill has a noble goal. Few -- including the Clinton administration, which strenuously opposes it -- disagree with its premise that mixed-income communities in which working people provide role models and the incomes to attract services and businesses make the best neighborhoods.

But as federal Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo noted when the House bill was passed, "you can't get there by kicking out the poor people."

"Public housing," says Cuomo, "is the housing of last resort in this country. If the poor people don't have public housing, they have nothing."

Now it seems that's exactly what some "reform" advocates would leave them with. They would copy the misguided welfare time limits and apply them to public housing. Both houses of Congress are expected soon to take up the idea, which comes from a Harvard University housing expert.

What they aren't taking up is the issue of job creation and higher incomes for poor people. Federal figures show the average income of those in public housing is a minuscule $6,500 per year. That's some $3,000 below the annual minimum wage for a full-time worker, which itself is hardly enough to live on.

Someone making $6,500 a year is not going to have a lot of luck finding a decent apartment on the private market if the welcome mat to public housing is pulled out from under them.

While proponents see a certain symmetry to booting people from public housing at the same they kick them off of public assistance, it's the type of symmetry that says if we cut off your right foot, we might as well cut off your left foot, too.

Hitting the poor with the double blow of an aid cutoff and an eviction is not tough love. It's saying to the poor, "Tough luck," while removing the stable environment they need to better themselves.

There already are more than 4 million poor Americans who qualify for public housing but who can't get into the 1 million units. HUD officials say those 4 million people are living in substandard housing, making the daily choice between paying the rent and putting food on the table or paying more than half of their income for rent. Or they're living in shelters.

Put a time limit on public housing without the guarantee of a living-wage job, and you don't improve life for the poor; you just recycle that poverty. You make room for some on the waiting list by evicting others and pushing them into the same predicament.

Compound the problem by implementing provisions in the House bill to admit more middle-class families, and you increase the hardships of the poor by making fewer units available to them. It's like robbing Peter to house Paul.

What's really needed is more public housing, done right this time. Building attractive, mixed-income public housing near existing units while providing the training, jobs and transportation to raise the incomes of people already there and demanding more of them are the ways to create the stable neighborhoods everyone claims to want.

Parts of the welfare and housing reform efforts pushed by Congress and the administration move in that direction. Mandates for work activities -- including community service for those not doing anything else -- make sense. So do crackdowns on those who refuse to play by the rules, such as swift evictions for those involved in drugs or other crime.

What doesn't make sense is clinging to the idealized notion of public housing as a stepping stone in an economy in which there's no place else for the poor to go. Society shouldn't be kicking people into the street because of the inability of the job market to absorb them.

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