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Study finds connection between car ownership and success for the poor

Housing voucher recipients with cars more likely than their car-less counterparts to have jobs and live in safe neighborhoods

Above: A bus is no ticket for success in finding and keeping a job, an Urban Institute study finds.

Americans may be driving less and considering bikes and mass transit more, but a recently released study found that for low-income residents of high-poverty neighborhoods, having a car is still linked to greater success and opportunity.

The federally-funded study of 12,000 housing voucher recipients in 10 U.S. cities, including Baltimore, found an association between having a car and living in a higher-opportunity neighborhood, as well as finding and keeping a job.

“Even as highly educated Milllenials and Baby Boomers fantasize about car-free-cities, car access is still indispensable for many families seeking safety and economic security,” writes Rolf Pendall, of the Urban Institute, co-leader of the group that produced the 67-page paper, “Driving to Opportunity.”

Studying participants in two programs of the U.S. Department of Housing And Urban Development – Moving to Opportunity (MTO) and the Welfare to Work Voucher Program (WTW) – the authors found benefits they say were in some cases present regardless of the quality of the city’s mass transit system.

Among MTO families, for example, those with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to remain employed.

Tradeoffs, but Mostly Advantages

The two programs, initiated in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were meant to test whether housing choice vouchers that allowed families to select where they lived could help low-income families access better neighborhoods, schools and jobs.

The study’s authors (from the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Maryland, as well as the Urban Institute) were able to compare outcomes for participants from ten cities: Atlanta, Augusta, Baltimore, Boston. Chicago, Fresno, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Spokane.

Some findings:

• Families with access to cars were more likely to find housing in neighborhoods with a better “environmental and social quality” and where they felt safer.

• Over time, households with automobiles experience less exposure to poverty and are less likely to return to high poverty neighborhoods than those without car access.

• Keeping or gaining access to automobiles is positively related to the likelihood of employment.

• There were trade-offs. For example, MTO households with cars lived in neighborhoods that were more spread-out, less walkable and had worse measured school performance than in transit-dependent households.

• The neighborhoods where car-less voucher users live offer access to larger numbers of jobs than those where driving voucher users live. However, voucher users with cars more than compensate for this by living in neighborhoods where fewer low-income people compete for available jobs.

Transit: Just not There Yet? 

Since the study highlights a strong association but not necessarily causation, drawing conclusion from it is tricky, the authors acknowledge. Pendall said more research is needed to determine “whether the car is the catalyst or if there is something deeper at work, of which the car is simply one manifestation.”

“A low-income household that is somehow able, inclined, or afforded the opportunity to buy a car might also do many other things to get ahead,” he writes. “Motivation, opportunity or both could be the key.”

As for the study’s implications for further research and for policy changes, there were plenty – including some that may seem like anathema to the advocates of improved transit.

While the authors note that “the importance of automobile access may also reflect the inadequacy of public transportation,” they seem to conclude overall that the poor don’t have time to wait for good mass transit to proliferate in U.S. cities.

“In the absence of building extensive transit networks which are fiscally impracticable in all but the densest U.S. metropolitan areas, our study suggests that cars present a more viable means of connecting low-income workers to job,” the authors write.

Some other conclusions they reach that suggest policy change:

• State and local governments should rethink asset limits on certain benefit programs so that a car will not disqualify families from receiving aid.

• Car-sharing arrangements at prices accessible for the working poor could be an employment and economic development tool.

• Ways should be found to help more low-income families drive despite some environmental costs.

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