How Car Ownership Helps the Working Poor Get Ahead

Access to public transit helps, but it’s not enough to connect some workers with economic opportunity.

National Journal
July 24, 2014, 6:57 a.m.

Buses stop right out­side LaToyia New­man-Gross’s apart­ment in sub­urb­an Columbia, Md. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get around by pub­lic trans­it. “They run every hour,” says New­man-Gross, 32. If you miss a bus, you’re stuck. Wait­ing out in the sun or snow with her four chil­dren be­side her usu­ally isn’t a great op­tion.

Amer­ic­ans are driv­ing short­er dis­tances, buy­ing few­er cars, and are less likely to ap­ply for a driver’s li­cense than just a few years ago. This might be due to the re­ces­sion—own­ing a car is ex­pens­ive—or it might be due to a cul­tur­al shift in fa­vor of urb­an liv­ing.

But al­most all house­holds, re­gard­less of so­cioeco­nom­ic status, own at least one vehicle. In 2009, more than three-quar­ters of work­ers com­muted by driv­ing alone. Re­cent re­search sug­gests that, par­tic­u­larly for single moms like New­man-Gross, own­ing a car can mean ac­cess to bet­ter jobs and safer neigh­bor­hoods.

“There’ve been times when I’ve been stand­ing on the bus stop with my kids, watch­ing oth­er people drive by with their cars, and you just feel less-than, when you can’t do something so simple, that most people take for gran­ted,” New­man-Gross says.

About 7.5 mil­lion house­holds in the 100 largest U.S. met­ro­pol­it­an areas don’t have ac­cess to a privately owned vehicle, ac­cord­ing to a 2011 study from the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. Roughly 60 per­cent of those house­holds are low in­come, and about 60 per­cent are non­white. The vast ma­jor­ity have ac­cess to pub­lic trans­it.

This March, the Urb­an In­sti­tute re­leased a stat­ist­ic­al ana­lys­is of fed­er­al data that found a link between car own­er­ship and em­ploy­ment. Re­search­ers took a look at fed­er­al data col­lec­ted on two groups of low-in­come people who re­ceived hous­ing vouch­ers in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“The fam­il­ies who had cars were more likely to get ac­cess to high-qual­ity neigh­bor­hoods—and they were more likely to get jobs if they didn’t have jobs already, and keep jobs if they already had jobs, than those house­holds who did not have cars,” says Rolf Pend­all, dir­ect­or of the Urb­an In­sti­tute’s Met­ro­pol­it­an Hous­ing and Com­munit­ies Policy Cen­ter. Ac­cess to pub­lic trans­it was as­so­ci­ated with keep­ing a job but not with get­ting one.

It’s un­clear to what ex­tent eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits out­weigh the costs of car own­er­ship—pay­ing for the car, plus in­sur­ance, gas, car re­pairs, and so on. But in areas with little trans­it, hav­ing a car clearly helps. The sub­urbs are home to many low- and middle-in­come jobs that can be hard to reach without a car. Ac­cess­ing these work­places is at best time-con­sum­ing and at worst im­possible for low-in­come res­id­ents of urb­an neigh­bor­hoods. 

For single, work­ing moms like New­man-Gross, there’s an ad­di­tion­al be­ne­fit to hav­ing a car: man­aging a fam­ily’s sched­ule. “When you’re by your­self, you know—your kids have got to pretty much go wherever you go,” she says.

New­man-Gross runs a day-care busi­ness out of her apart­ment. She doesn’t com­mute. But she has young chil­dren, and that means doc­tor’s ap­point­ments, meet­ings with teach­ers, and travel to stores where she can get a good deal on food and cloth­ing for a fam­ily of five. She used to spend a lot of money on tax­is, some­times as much as $60 to get to one doc­tor’s ap­point­ment.

That changed three months ago, when New­man-Gross re­ceived a used 2002 Mazda minivan from a Mary­land-based non­profit called Vehicles for Change. The or­gan­iz­a­tion, foun­ded by an auto-parts com­pany in 1999, fixes up donated cars and awards them to people liv­ing close to the poverty level. Cli­ents pay a fee of about $750 for a car (they of­ten end up pay­ing far more in car in­sur­ance).

Most fam­il­ies are re­ferred to Vehicles for Change by state so­cial-ser­vice agen­cies or oth­er non­profits. Cli­ents come from across Mary­land, Vir­gin­ia, and the Dis­trict of Columbia, and the vast ma­jor­ity are single moth­ers. To re­ceive a car, cli­ents must be em­ployed or have a veri­fi­able job of­fer.

Marty Schwartz, pres­id­ent of Vehicles for Change, says that about three-quar­ters of cli­ents who ac­quire a car through the or­gan­iz­a­tion get a bet­ter job with­in a year, and see an in­come boost of about $7,000. Mary­land plans to ex­pand trans­it op­tions, but those pro­jects take time, and the fam­il­ies Vehicles for Change serves need trans­port­a­tion now.

“It just seemed al­most too good to be true,” New­man-Gross says. She doesn’t ex­pect her twelve-year-old Mazda to run per­fectly all the time, but she has a six-month war­ranty and can take the car to Vehicles for Change’s gar­age to get it re­paired at a low rate.

Get­ting a new car may not have im­me­di­ately altered New­man-Gross’s in­come, but it has made life easi­er. She’s been able to ex­pose her kids to new ex­per­i­ences, like trips to the pet­ting zoo, and travel has be­come less stress­ful. “My 1-year-old, she just had sur­gery, and I was able to take her home in our own car,” New­man-Gross says. “As a par­ent, you just feel bet­ter about those kinds of things.”

What We're Following See More »
AVOIDS SHUTDOWN WITH A FEW HOURS TO SPARE
Trump Signs Border Deal
1 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump signed a sweeping spending bill Friday afternoon, averting another partial government shutdown. The action came after Trump had declared a national emergency in a move designed to circumvent Congress and build additional barriers at the southern border, where he said the United States faces 'an invasion of our country.'"

Source:
REDIRECTS $8 BILLION
Trump Declares National Emergency
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"President Donald Trump on Friday declared a state of emergency on the southern border and immediately direct $8 billion to construct or repair as many as 234 miles of a border barrier. The move — which is sure to invite vigorous legal challenges from activists and government officials — comes after Trump failed to get the $5.7 billion he was seeking from lawmakers. Instead, Trump agreed to sign a deal that included just $1.375 for border security."

Source:
COULD SOW DIVISION AMONG REPUBLICANS
House Will Condemn Emergency Declaration
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"House Democrats are gearing up to pass a joint resolution disapproving of President Trump’s emergency declaration to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move that will force Senate Republicans to vote on a contentious issue that divides their party. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Thursday evening in an interview with The Washington Post that the House would take up the resolution in the coming days or weeks. The measure is expected to easily clear the Democratic-led House, and because it would be privileged, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would be forced to put the resolution to a vote that he could lose."

Source:
MILITARY CONSTRUCTION, DRUG FORFEITURE FUND
Where Will the Emergency Money Come From?
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"ABC News has learned the president plans to announce on Friday his intention to spend about $8 billion on the border wall with a mix of spending from Congressional appropriations approved Thursday night, executive action and an emergency declaration. A senior White House official familiar with the plan told ABC News that $1.375 billion would come from the spending bill Congress passed Thursday; $600 million would come from the Treasury Department's drug forfeiture fund; $2.5 billion would come from the Pentagon's drug interdiction program; and through an emergency declaration: $3.5 billion from the Pentagon's military construction budget."

Source:
TRUMP SAYS HE WILL SIGN
House Passes Funding Deal
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

"The House passed a massive border and budget bill that would avert a shutdown and keep the government funded through the end of September. The Senate passed the measure earlier Thursday. The bill provides $1.375 billion for fences, far short of the $5.7 billion President Trump had demanded to fund steel walls. But the president says he will sign the legislation, and instead seek to fund his border wall by declaring a national emergency."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login