Currently, the U.S. government uses the same income thresholds to define poverty, regardless of whether families live in rural Texas or New York City.

“They don’t take into account variations in the cost of living, of which housing is a major component,” Early said.

Realizing this, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decided to commission a report that would come up with good estimates of what a modest unit of rental housing such as a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment would cost in different areas. As a member of HUD’s Assisted Housing Research Cadre, Early was selected to prepare this report.

To write the report, Early has been given data from a survey that HUD conducted of all the families who receive housing vouchers from the government. Residents were asked to provide the size and cost of their units as well as information on the condition of the units and the neighborhoods in which they were located.

Congress is interested in assessing the validity of the official poverty thresholds because these numbers are used to determine eligibility for many government programs. Knowing how much people have to spend on housing, for example, can provide information on how much they have available to spend on other goods such as health care.

Early has taught economics at Southwestern since 1994 and is one of the university’s Paideia® Professors. He has been studying low-income housing programs, housing markets and homelessness for more than a decade, and his work has appeared in publications such as the Journal of Urban Economics, the Journal of Housing Research, the Journal of Housing Economics, Regional Science and Urban Economics, and the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

He said this new project also should help scholars involved in various aspects of housing research.

“Research on housing issues is often hampered by the lack of a valid measure of the price of housing across geographic areas,” Early said. “The development of a sound cost of rental housing index will be a welcome addition to the tools available to the research community.”


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