Automobiles and Low-Income Families

A considerable amount of research and experience has shown that automobiles are essential for helping low-income families get out of poverty. “Having access to a car is an important determinant of labor market outcomes,” say University of California researchers Steven Raphael and Lorien Rice in Car Ownership, Employment, and Earnings (348-kb pdf), meaning if you have a car you are more likely to have a job and earn more money.

Portland State University researcher Kerri Sullivan found a similar result in Oregon in a paper titled Transportation and Work (636-kb pdf). Sullivan found that owning a car was more important for insuring the employment of non-high-school graduates than getting a high-school equivalency degree. Non-high-school graduates who owned a car were 80 percent more likely to have a job and they earned $1,100 more per month than those who did not have a car.

While nearly 95 percent of white families own at least one car, only about 75 percent of black families own a car. In a follow-up to Raphael’s previously mentioned paper, University of California researchers Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll wrote a paper titled Can Boosting Minority Car-Ownership rates Narrow Inter-Racial Employment Gaps?”(344-kb pdf). They found that reducing the white-black auto ownership gap would reduce nearly half of the white-black employment gap.

Cars are important for employment because they are so much faster and more flexible than any other form of transportation. Planners in Cincinnati found that most people in that region could reach 80 to 100 percent of the region’s jobs with a twenty-minute drive, but could only reach 20 to 40 percent of the region’s jobs with a forty-minute transit trip. The Cincinnati study also found that building rail transit would actually reduce the mobility of low-income residents, without increasing anyone else’ mobility.

“Public transit is not a reasonable substitute for the private vehicle for most people, poor or not poor,” says Genevieve Giuliano of the University of Southern California planning school in a paper titled The Role of Public Transit in the Mobility of Low-Income Households (1.8-mb pdf). “Regular transit is associated with less trip making and less distance traveled, and the effect is more pronounced for the poor” As a result, Giuliano concludes, “in most circumstances, private vehicle access is the key to improved mobility for the poor.”

Because of the importance of automobility for low-income families, a number of anti-poverty groups are working to insure that such families have access to cars. Driving out of Poverty in Private Automobiles (76-kb pdf) describes the efforts of a Wisconsin community action agency to help low-income families obtain or maintain their cars. These efforts have spread nationwide in a program called Ways to Work.

The Portland ways-to-work program is described by Cascade Policy Institute researcher <”>John Charles in a short paper titled Reduce unemployment through auto ownership (136-kb pdf). Charles also summarizes Kerri Sullivan’s and Steven Raphael’s research, described above.

The problem with so-called smart growth is that the barriers it imposes on auto driving will fall hardest on low-income people and others who have recently attained or are on the verge of attaining automobility. In Cars, Women, and Minorities (60-kb pdf), commuting expert Alan Pisarski shows that women, minorities, and low-income people have historically had less automobility than white, middle-class men, but the gaps are quickly closing. However, smart-growth restrictions on driving will tend to hurt some people more than others, and Pisarski shows that low-income people will tend to be harmed the most. Pisarski’s book, Commuting in America, is the standard reference work on commuting trends.

Similarly, proposals to build rail transit are often promoted as a way of providing people with more transportation “choices.” But since most rail lines go to white, middle-class neighborhoods, they are giving choices to people who already have plenty of mobility. Efforts instead should concentrate on providing more mobility for those who lack mobility, and that often means increasing auto ownership, not investing in expensive transit projects.