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
Sophie Quinton
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Sophie Quinton
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 »
BUT WHITE HOUSE MAY USE AGAINST HIM ANYWAY
Ethics Cops Clear Mueller to Work on Trump Case
15 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been cleared by U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts to oversee an investigation into possible collusion between then-candidate Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and Russia." Some had speculated that the White House would use "an ethics rule limiting government attorneys from investigating people their former law firm represented" to trip up Mueller's appointment. Jared Kushner is a client of Mueller's firm, WilmerHale. "Although Mueller has now been cleared by the Justice Department, the White House may still use his former law firm's connection to Manafort and Kushner to undermine the findings of his investigation, according to two sources close to the White House."

Source:
BUSINESSES CAN’T PLEAD FIFTH
Senate Intel to Subpoena Two of Flynn’s Businesses
16 hours ago
THE LATEST

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and ranking member Mark Warner (D-VA) will subpoena two businesses owned by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Burr said, "We would like to hear from General Flynn. We'd like to see his documents. We'd like him to tell his story because he publicly said he had a story to tell."

DETAILS ARE CLASSIFIED
Brennan Saw Russia Intelligence “Worthy” of Investigation
21 hours ago
THE LATEST

At an open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, former CIA chief John Brennan said he saw information on Trump-Russia contacts that were worth a further look. "Having been involved in many counterintelligence cases in the past, I know what the Russians do. They try to suborn individuals," Brennan said. "And they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to act on their behalf, whether wittingly or unwittingly. And I was worried by a number of the contacts that the Russians had with U.S. persons, and so therefore by the time I left office ... I had unresolved questions in my mind."

Source:
STAFF HAS COMPILED A SHORT LIST
Trump Enlisting Help of Outside Counsel
22 hours ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump is moving rapidly toward assembling outside counsel to help him navigate the investigations into his campaign and Russian interference in last year’s election, and in recent days he and his advisers have privately courted several prominent attorneys to join the effort. By Monday, a list of finalists for the legal team had emerged, according to four people briefed on the discussions."

Source:
MADE REQUESTS TO COATS, ROGERS
Trump Asked Intel Chiefs to Push Back Against FBI Probe
23 hours ago
THE LATEST

"President Trump asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government, according to current and former officials. Trump made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election."

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