Print Friendly
Few Solutions for the Mobility Needs of Lower-Income Families

With few options, lower-income families rely on "Buy Here Pay Here" programs to solve their mobility needs. Photo by Staci Myers.

Early this month, the Los Angeles Times published a thought-provoking piece on the dependence of lower-income families on cars and the shortage, as well as the absence, of public transit in meeting the needs of this income class. The article echoes earlier findings of the gap between the placement of jobs and transit accessibility. This is a topic we’ve covered many times on this blog. Read our previous coverage here, here and here.

The article makes a strong connection between car ownership and job stability. “You’re more likely to have a job and less likely to be fired,” says Evelyn Blumenberg, a professor of urban planning at the University of California-Los Angeles. “It’s just a no-brainer that low-income families need cars.”

The article highlights the “Buy Here Pay Here” (BHPH) financing scheme, in which car buyers arrange a loan and make payments at the dealership through in-house financing, as opposed to getting a loan from a bank.

The article reports:

The lack of alternatives drives millions of families into the arms of Buy Here Pay Here dealers, known for selling used cars at stiff markups and with high-interest loans. Many of the buyers eventually default, and the dealers repossess the vehicles and often put them back up for sale. Dealers sometimes sell the same car again and again. The Buy Here Pay Here industry has prospered during the economic downturn, selling to people whose incomes and credit ratings have taken a hit. Dealers say that they are meeting a societal need and not just squeezing profits from people who are down on their luck.

The author also makes a case for allocating money to help lower-income families purchase private vehicles. “The U.S. Transportation Department plans to spend $71 billion this fiscal year on roads and bridges, $22 billion on public transit and more than $8 billion on rail projects, but has allocated no money to help put the poor behind the wheel,” the author states.

And although about 160 nonprofit groups nationwide work to bring affordable private vehicles to lower-income families, a larger scale effort to implement car-friendly policies have failed:

Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., has tried for years to get the government to help the poor buy cars. In 2005 and again in 2007, she sponsored legislation to provide $50 million a year for low-income car ownership programs. Both bills died in committee. She said she has faced resistance from, among others, environmental organizations that insist mass transit is a better solution.

“Public transit is not practical in Milwaukee, where the wind chill can be 45 below and you have to drop three kids off at day care,” Moore says. “We really have a crisis with respect to getting people to their jobs.” Furthermore, the authors explains that in many states, welfare laws limit what aid recipients can spend on cars. In California, for example, welfare recipients can’t own a car worth more than $4,650, which drives people to buy clunkers or forego owning a car to remain eligible for welfare.

Going to cars as a solution will further bury us in the dependence on private motor vehicles that has very much shaped the mobility problems of today. At the same time, without integrated and comprehensive public transit, and little funds or political will to attain them, we leave lower-income classes in a bind.

Are there any other short-, medium- or long-term solutions that can alleviate the financial burdens and mobility needs of this income class, preferably, ones that don’t rely too heavily on private vehicles? What are your thoughts on this dilemma? Share with us in the comments section below.

Print Friendly
  • Anonymous

    Self-driving cars would be an interesting solution, indeed. Hopefully, by the time that technology catches up with us, we’ll have well-connected neighborhoods and little need for cars 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your comment. 
    Itir

  • Trevor Thomas

    This probably falls under the category of long-term solution, but I’m very curious to see what impact self-driving cars will have on the mobility options of low-income households, particularly those in low-density areas.  It’ll probably be some time before an automated car sharing system becomes cheaper than a cab ride, and perhaps such a system will never offer significant benefits over current taxi/para-transit services, but the idea of a car that can take children to day care, drop the mother off at her suburban job, and then drive itself to the next closest rider in an optimized way seems like it will hold a lot of promise.

    That said, I agree with Blumenberg that a clear short-term solution should be to facilitate car ownership among low-income households, regressive political hurdles notwithstanding.