Driven To Success

A new study (pdf) from the Urban Institute suggests that access to cars makes low-income Americans more likely to escape poverty. Co-author Rolf Pendall explains the findings:

Our evidence comes from two Department of Housing and Urban Development demonstration programs: Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing and Welfare to Work Vouchers. Both were designed to test whether housing choice vouchers—that is, subsidies that allowed participants to choose where they live—propelled low-income households into greater economic security. …

The results? Housing voucher recipients with cars tended to live and remain in higher-opportunity neighborhoods—places with lower poverty rates, higher social status, stronger housing markets, and lower health risks. Cars are also associated with improved neighborhood satisfaction and better employment outcomes. Among Moving to Opportunity families, those with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to remain employed.

Emily Badger considers the implications:

All of these findings are as much a reflection on the value of cars as the relatively poor state of public transit.

The underlying issue also isn’t so much that cars create opportunity. Rather, it’s that we’ve created many places where you can’t access opportunity without a car. Which also means that we’ve created places that punish people who don’t have one (or can’t afford to get one). That’s a much larger critique. …

How, though, would you increase car access among the poor in a way that doesn’t simply saddle families with even more unsustainable expenses? Car ownership, for any kind of family, comes with all kinds of related costs: in insurance, in repairs, in gas. The burden of those costs, though, tends to weigh even more heavily on the low-income. They’re more likely to access financing through a predatory loan. They may have less access in the neighborhood to a reliable mechanic. A family living in a low-income neighborhood with high crime by definition faces higher insurance rates.