WORCESTER, Mass.—The letters began arriving in the mailboxes of the sprawling public-housing complex last spring. The Worcester Housing Authority had tried to make residents self-sufficient, the letters said. But now it was taking another step.

The letters explained that step in big letters that were hard to miss: “IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Residents Required to Go to Work/Attend School.” As long as they weren’t disabled or over 55, the letter elaborated, at least one member of each household had to go to work or school, or risk eviction.

“If you want a government benefit, then you have to do something for it," Ray Mariano, the head of the Worcester Housing Authority, told me, in explaining the program.

Worcester is the latest government authority to try to influence the personal decisions of citizens.To make New York residents healthier, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban super-sized drinks, and last month, U.S. Housing and Urban Development said it was prohibiting smoking in public housing, also for health reasons. A popular behavioral economics idea—often referred to as “nudge” and popularized by a book of the same name—has the government advocating to enroll people in 401(k)s unless they opt out and putting healthier food at the beginning of school lunch buffets so that children will choose fruits and vegetables, rather than chips.

But the Worcester program goes a step beyond many of these initiatives, as the penalty for not complying is so great. If residents do as they’re told, they’ll go through a program that includes intensive case management and will get a job, earn some money, and move out of public housing. But if they can’t or don’t find work or enroll in classes, a worst-case scenario could see them kicked out of public housing, often the last thing between the very poor and a homeless shelter.

Is this the role government ought to be playing in people’s lives? John Stuart Mill condemned such efforts, writing, “The only purpose for which power may be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

People may make bad choices, Mill and others argue. But that’s one of the costs of a free society. And it’s not as though government intervention is risk-free: The government may make even worse decisions on people’s behalf. Or, when it treats them like children, why expect that they will ever act like adults?

But what if the government can step in and improve the lives of some of its most vulnerable citizens? What if people can’t achieve the American Dream without the government telling them how to go about it? Is it okay for the government to exercise its power in that case? In other words, what does it mean for Mill’s concept of a free society if the Worcester strategy works?

* * *

Ray Mariano, the head of the Worcester Housing Authority, is accustomed to telling people how things should be run. He’s the oldest of nine children, and grew up in the very public-housing system he now runs. A Democrat, he served as the city’s mayor for four consecutive terms, from 1993 until 2001. When he became head of the housing authority, he upped police involvement on the properties and started cracking down on drug dealers, bad tenants, and various people on public-housing property who didn’t live there. He also installed license-plate cameras so that when crimes were committed he could review footage to see who was nearby.  

I met Mariano in his office, which is on the ground level of a concrete public-housing tower near downtown Worcester. Above his desk, more than a dozen live-camera feeds from his public-housing properties, both inside and out, keep him up-to-date on capital-improvement projects, as well as the comings and goings of residents and visitors. Mariano, who speaks with a Boston accent and the self-assurance of a lifelong politician, sees public-housing residents as his charges, at one point referring to the children who live in public housing as “my kids.”

For decades, he tells me, policymakers have ignored the poor, forcing them to find their own way in a difficult world. This passivity on the part of the government has left public-housing residents dependent on the assistance and feeling “entitled to these benefits,” he said. His goal is to lead them away from that dependence, into self-sufficiency, which he believes will make them much happier in the long run.

“I’m not trying to force anybody to do anything,” told me. “What I’m trying to do is lift as many people out of poverty as I can.”

Mariano launched the first part of the program that would eventually become the school/work requirement in 2011. Called A Better Life, it offered residents intensive case management and encouraged them to go to work or attend school. Residents were assigned a family-life counselor who assessed them on their finances, health, education level, occupational readiness, and their personal and family challenges. Participants met with their coaches at least once a week, put together a series of goals, and then started trying to achieve those goals. They had access to free workshops, conducted on the properties of public housing, including Family Planning, The Art of Customer Service, and PC Literacy 100.

When he launched the first phase of A Better Life, Mariano targeted more than 500 residents who he thought might benefit from the program. Despite letters on their doorsteps and meetings on public-housing properties, only 26 people enrolled.

“We begged people to sign up, we begged, we went and said, please, look at all these things we can do for you,” he told me.

Ray Mariano and his video feeds (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Then, in 2014, Worcester received permission from the state of Massachusetts to move anyone who joined the program to the top of the waiting list for public housing in the city. So Mariano switched strategies, targeting not public-housing residents but those who wanted in. With more than 10,000 people on the public-housing waiting list, Mariano figured he’d be overloaded with requests. He mailed letters to 1,118 individuals, and received only 103 applications for the program.

One reason for the low enrollment numbers is that people might have been put off by the program’s extensive requirements. Joanna Collazo was one of the earliest enrollees. She had four children when she joined, and was in debt and bouncing among jobs in housekeeping and retail. Counselors asked her about her five-year plan and instructed her to take some of the life-skills classes at night, but she balked at first.

“I would always say, oh my kids, oh this, oh that,” she told me. “But that’s because I had low self-esteem.”

Residents of public housing often have little incentive to work at minimum-wage jobs because their rent is calculated as a percentage of their income. When they work, they pay more rent and they additionally have to pay for childcare and transportation. Sometimes, they end up in a worse financial situation than before they started working, have less time with their families, and are stuck at grueling jobs with little opportunity for advancement. As part of A Better Life, though, residents’ rents don’t increase when their incomes go up. Instead, the housing authority puts any increased earnings into an escrow account that the family can use in the future.

A few years into the program, Mariano couldn’t understand why more people weren’t signing  up. In the properties he was targeting, Curtis Apartments and Great Brook Valley—two sprawling brick apartment complexes set on a hill in Worcester—poverty was a very real problem. More than 55 percent of the families living in the two properties had incomes below the poverty line, and 47 percent of residents between 18 and 24 years old lacked a high-school diploma. The unemployment rate for residents of Great Brook Valley was 77 percent, according to the Boston University School of Public Health, which began evaluating A Better Life soon after the program started.

So Mariano decided to double down. If people wouldn’t join of their own accord, he decided, he would compel them to join. That’s when he began to send out the letters. After some negotiations with HUD and the state of Massachusetts, he agreed that he would only require residents of state-subsidized public housing to go to work or go to school; residents of federal public housing, which makes up the bulk of public housing in Worcester, would be exempt. This meant that only residents of two properties—Curtis Apartments and another complex called Main South Gardens, as well as residents placed in scattered site housing—had to join the program.

Following the mandate, 74 people have signed up. (There are 393 state-subsidized units in Worcester, though some are occupied by elderly or disabled residents.) The new participants join the 101 people who enrolled in order to move up the public housing waiting list and the seven people who began the voluntary program in 2011 and are still meeting with case managers. The Housing Authority is currently knocking on the doors of the people who have been identified as non-compliant with the new requirements. So far, zero families have refused case management assistance and gotten evicted, Mariano told me.

* * *

The staff of A Better Life do not shy from telling people what they thinks is in their clients’ best interest. Joanna Collazo’s counselor raised questions about her relationship with her boyfriend, for example, and encouraged her to attend a healthy-relationships class.

She then “determined that the relationship was unhealthy and thus unacceptable,” according to materials provided to me by Mariano.

It seemed strange to me that, essentially, Collazo’s landlord was giving her relationship advice, and that her housing status could depend on whether or not she followed that advice. But Collazo told me the advice didn’t feel intrusive.

“The way they teach the class is more based on you and what you want,” she said. “You think about what kind of relationship you are expecting from everybody in your life.”

A Better Life participants Joanna Collazo and Jorge Campbell (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

If participants want to go to a four-year college, Mariano said, counselors might discourage them because they stand to accrue large amounts of debt and may not finish. Instead, they’ll be advised to start out at a two-year college, with the option of transferring once they get some credits under their belt. Similarly, if someone says they want to be a social worker, but tests from Mass EdCO, a state network of career-counseling sites, indicate that they’ll flunk out of school, Mariano said, they’re guided to choose a different path.

To me, this sounded a little like A Brave New World, the Aldous Huxley novel where people are assigned castes and jobs depending on their breeding.

But Mariano says that his program just offers advice, not mandates.

“We put the options in front of them. We give them advice. They don’t have to accept it,” he told me.

Besides, Collazo says she’s much better off having followed the program’s advice. The budgeting and parenting classes helped her tremendously. So did the work with the family-life counselor. She decided she wanted to work behind a desk, so her counselor got her a position at the Department of Public Works. Because she didn’t have much experience, she only qualified for an apprenticeship, and had to work for free for a year. But now she has a salary and a full-time job that she loves. It’s a totally different world from the days when she was holding down two part-time jobs and, since she didn’t have a car, had to walk the long distances between locations because she didn’t want to spend money on the bus. Collazo thinks the program should be mandatory for everyone who lives in public housing.  

“Some people are too comfortable where they’re at, they don't want to leave that zone,” she told me. “They need a little push to open up their minds, realize, if you set your mind to doing something, you’re able to do it.”

Collazo benefited from people guiding her in a world that had become overwhelming to her. She chose to seek help, and found it was useful. This kind of help can really make a difference for those living in poverty, argues the MIT economist Esther Duflo.

“We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think, ‘Why don’t they take more responsibility for their lives?’ And what we are forgetting is that the richer you are the less responsibility you need to take for your own life because everything is taken care of for you,” she said in a widely quoted talk at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. “Stop berating people for not being responsible and start to think of ways instead of providing the poor with the luxury that we all have, which is that a lot of decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we are on the right track. For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track."

Still, many low-income people value their autonomy and chafe at government interference. They include Candria Gray, who lives in Great Brook Valley with her two sons. Gray enrolled in A Better Life with the hope it could help her get a driver’s license and a job. But she didn’t like the idea of meeting with a counselor who would judge her on her progress every week.

“It’s too much. Too demanding,” she told me from her apartment. Her door was covered with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wrapping paper, a decoration for one of her sons’ birthday parties.

Residents of public housing are already subject to enough control, she told me. Their apartments can get inspected at random, with no notice, and their guests can get kicked out if they’re deemed unacceptable. There are more and more cameras on the public-housing properties, she told me, and now the public housing authority inspects homes for bedbugs twice a year.

“They find more and more reasons to come in,” she told me.

Gray is doing just fine on her own, she told me.

She’ll be finished with her associate’s degree in May, and then hopes to enroll in a four-year college to study criminal justice. She worries about some of her neighbors, who could be targeted next in a future work/school push (since Great Brook Valley is federally subsidized, its residents are not yet targeted by A Better Life).

“You want to evict a woman who pays her rent because she doesn't want to get out there and work at the age of 48 or 52?” she said. “Even if she is happy living off $500 a month now?”

The local market at Great Brook Valley (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Some residents have applied to transfer from state-subsidized public housing, where residents are now required to work, to federal public housing in Worcester, where the program does not apply, Angelica Douglas, who works for the Worcester Housing Authority, told me. Douglas also went through A Better Life, and says she thinks people don’t want to participate in the program because of laziness. It was tough for her to move from a shelter to public housing and then follow the goals her case manager set for her, but now she has a job working for the housing authority.

Others “don’t want to go to the workshops. They don’t like the fact that the case-worker makes you do goals,” she told me. “Some people don’t like that extra push.”

* * *

Encouraging Americans to become self-sufficient is nothing new. The Works Progress Administration was created in part because Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others felt that in the wake of a demoralizing period of national unemployment, Americans should work for money, rather than be on the dole. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (commonly known as welfare reform) replaced the cash-assistance program of the time, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which only allowed a recipient to receive benefits for 60 months. The hope was that the time-limit would push people into the workforce.

In the years since, while many people did move from the welfare rolls into the workforce, others became “disconnected,” with neither jobs nor welfare benefits, according to Kristin Seefeldt, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work who has studied disconnected mothers. Some women rely on help from family and friends and sometimes strangers to survive, sometimes feeling pressured to exchange sexual favors for help.

“Telling people to get a job doesn’t get people out into the labor force,” Seefeldt said. “Saying that you must work doesn’t do anything to address any labor-market problems that a particular area might be experiencing. And it doesn’t address people’s long-term prospects for getting jobs.”

Often, those cut off from government benefits don’t have much in the way of labor-market prospects, Seefeldt said, and programs like A Better Life may do nothing more than land them a life working unpredictable hours at minimum-wage jobs, though Mariano says that the apprenticeship program at the public-housing authority gives participants the experience they need to get better positions. I could see why it might be challenging for residents of Curtis Apartments and Great Brook Valley to find permanent, sustainable jobs. The housing is located about six miles from downtown Worcester, and is served by only a few bus lines. If residents don’t have cars or driver’s licenses, their job options are limited. In addition, there may be other obstacles: They may want to raise their own children, rather than sending them to daycare, or they may not have much of an education.

The Belmont Tower Apartments, a public-housing property in Worcester, Massachusetts (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Jorge Campbell, 33, enrolled in the program because he and his children were sharing a bedroom in his grandmother’s apartment, and he wanted to move up the public-housing list. He’s been in the program for about three years, and has juggled the case management with raising his three children alone. Still, he only has a temp-to-hire job printing commercial flyers. His supervisors have been understanding, helping him work his schedule around his childcare responsibilities, but since he doesn’t have a driver’s license, it can be a challenge if one of his kids gets sick or needs someone to pick them up at school.

Residents often find the requirements difficult at first, Jan Yost, the president of one of the program’s funders, the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, told me. But once they see that the rules will be enforced, and that they may lose their homes, they will start to participate, and it will do them good, she said.

“We’ve got a lot of support programs in this country, and we don’t often cut people totally loose,” she said. “When people begin to see that rules are made to be followed, there will be a change. ”

Mariano and Yost are already talking about expanding the program. They want to change public housing so that people are helped to get an education and become self-sufficient, Yost told me, and believe that the public-housing system across the country should do the same. Is this an appropriate role for government? That doesn’t matter, Mariano says. What matters is that it works.

It’s like good parenting, he told me. Your children might not initially like the rules you make for them. But eventually they’ll come around. Mariano says he knows this from personal experience. A few years back, one of his kids decided he wanted to attend Boston College. But Mariano knew he’d be happier at the University of Michigan.

“I said, ‘I know you. I know these two schools. You're going to Michigan,’” Mariano told me. “He graduated from Michigan, called me up and said, ‘Dad, this is the best decision I ever made in my whole life.’”

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