Could Democrats support vouchers?

They already do

Illustration: Aidan Wharton

Once upon a time, America thought it had the answer to its housing crisis: construct massive, government-run housing projects for low-income families. But these concrete behemoths, towering over their urban landscapes, soon became symbols of well-intentioned policy gone wrong, living embodiments of our nation’s broken dreams. As crime and decay took root, it became clear that this approach didn’t alleviate poverty; it exacerbated it. Rather than provide a ladder out, they trapped families in a perpetual cycle of hardship and despair. In searching for a better way to house the poor, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. This created a system, soon known as Section 8, which provided vouchers to help cover the costs of renting on the private market. 

The political evolution of Section 8 reveals a peculiar partisan cycle. Here’s Jeremy Johnson, writing in Social Science History

Vouchers were originally proposed as a Republican alternative to Democratic public housing construction and slowly emerged as a viable component of housing policy in the United States. In the mid-1990s, a shift occurred in which Democrats embraced vouchers and Republicans retreated from their innovation.

Government-sponsored public housing construction, an ambitious program forged during the New Deal, aimed to provide decent housing for low-income Americans. The plan faced conservative and Republican opposition necessitating compromises that diminished the scale of the program, yet expansion of the supply of low-income housing through publicly financed construction dominated policy for decades. Republicans, who argued against the prospect of socialized housing, eventually proposed rental vouchers (originally called housing allowances) as a policy alternative. The competitive electoral environment of the latter half of the twentieth century ensured rental vouchers would continue as a lynchpin for partisanship.

At first most Democrats derided rental vouchers; they appeared as half-measures compared to expanding the supply of affordable housing. Over time, however, Democrats came to acquiesce in the implementation of the Republican policy and by the mid-1990s they were promoting it. For their part, the Republicans eventually won the voucher program they had long championed. However, as Democrats embraced vouchers, many Republicans reversed course and opposed what was once their own reform.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Democrat who opposes Section 8. Though few Republicans want to outright rescind the program, you can find plenty of them who are skeptical of it. That begs the question: could we eventually see a similar realignment on school vouchers and Education Savings Accounts? 

It’s hard to imagine such a world, but it’s important to remember the time horizons. Section 8 took about 20 years to see the parties trade positions on the issue. 

It’s easier for me to see Democrats eventually embracing vouchers and ESAs than Republicans abandoning them. That’s because I believe most, if not all, Republican states will embrace universal eligibility (like Arkansas and Arizona have). That means the program will be more analogous to Medicare (a more popular program with the GOP) than Medicaid (one less so). If every family in America, regardless of income, received a Section 8 voucher, then it would be politically difficult for either party to oppose that program after enacted (it’s why Social Security and Medicare are called the “third rail”). 

For Democrats, I could see a few reasons they’d eventually get behind school vouchers and ESAs. The first is that they generally support vouchers in other contexts. If a Democratic candidate for office campaigned on ending Section 8 or Medicaid and replacing either with only government-run options, they’d be booed out of the room. You could imagine, years from now, after the acrimony over implementation has faded, that Democrats view school vouchers and ESAs as an entitlement to be protected at all costs. Ironically, Democrats will be even more likely to support these programs if Republicans turn on them (which is more likely if they are confined to low-income families), as they’ve done (somewhat) on Section 8. Such is the nature of our partisan society. 

Of course, the difference between ESA/vouchers and Section 8/Medicaid is the presence of teachers unions. Though organized labor was involved in public housing construction and the running of public hospitals, they were nowhere near as robust back when those laws were passed than the teachers unions are now. If they were, families would likely still be trapped in Robert Moses-esque poverty factories and overwhelmed government hospitals. I doubt unions would ever get behind school vouchers and ESAs, but if their overall ranks of members diminish after many families leave the traditional system, they may lose the power to dictate the terms of Democratic policy. 

I wouldn’t hold my breath. The Democratic candidates I’ve worked with would bend to the will of a public sector union even if it only had ten members. That means, regardless of whether unions see their ranks shrink, we can count on a showdown between two democratic constituencies: organized labor and communities of color. The latter are much more likely to benefit from school vouchers or ESAs if the laws are written, as some states have, to begin eligibility with the lowest-performing schools and lowest-income neighborhoods. That could be why initial polling on the issue (albeit from pro-voucher groups) seems to suggest Black families are particularly supportive of ESAs. I’d want to see more polling on the subject from neutral organizations. Still, I wouldn’t be shocked if families who feel they aren’t being served well by the current system embrace a policy that gives them more options and more control. After all, they’d simply be getting what affluent families take for granted.