Population Research and Policy Review

, Volume 26, Issue 4, pp 387-409

First online:

Social programs and household size: evidence from New York city

  • Ingrid Gould EllenAffiliated withWagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University Email author 
  • , Brendan O’FlahertyAffiliated withDepartment of Economics, Columbia University

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What determines how many adults live in a house? How do people divide themselves up among households? Average household sizes vary substantially, both over time and in the cross-section. In this paper, we describe how a variety of government policies affect living arrangements, intentionally or not. Using data from a survey of households in New York City, we find that these incentives appear to have an impact. Specifically, households receiving these housing and income subsidies are smaller on average (measured by number of adults). The impacts appear to be considerably larger than those that would occur if the programs were lump-sum transfers. Small average household size can be extremely expensive in terms of physical and environmental resources, higher rents, and possibly homelessness. Thus, we encourage policymakers to pay greater heed to the provisions built into various social policies that favor smaller households.


Household size Housing subsidies Income subsidies New York Social programs