The New Deal, the Deserving Poor, and the First Public Housing Residents in New York City

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Between 1934 and the time of the 1940 Census, the US government built and leased 30,151 units of public housing, but we know little about the residents who benefited from this housing. We use a unique methodology that compares addresses of five public housing developments to complete-count data from the 1940 Census to identify residents of public housing in New York City at the time of the census. We compare these residents to the larger pool of residents living in New York City in 1940 who were eligible to apply for the housing to assess how closely housing authorities adhered to the intent of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) and the Housing Act of 1937. This comparison produces a picture of whom public housing administrators considered deserving of this public benefit at the dawn of the public housing program in the United States. Results indicate a shift toward serving households with lower incomes over time. All the developments had a consistent preference for households with a nuclear family structure, but policies favoring racial segregation and other discretion on the part of housing authorities for tenant selection created distinct populations across housing developments. Households headed by a naturalized citizen were favored over households headed by a native-born citizen in nearly all the public housing projects. This finding suggests a more nuanced understanding of who public housing administrators considered deserving of the first public housing than archival research accounts had previously indicated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-115
Number of pages25
JournalSocial Science History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020

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