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.”

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