Urban Fold

Wheels to Wealth: The Role of Auto Ownership in Reducing Poverty

Researcher suggests that to climb out of poverty, low income families need a car.

" A researcher from one of Washington, D.C.’s most influential public-policy think tanks suggested during a visit here recently that if advocates for the poor really want to help low-income families, they’ll start putting their energies toward enabling people of meager financial means to purchase automobiles. 'Even in places that have really good transit, research evidence shows that with a car, people have much better opportunities for employment,' said Margy Waller, a Clinton administration domestic advisor who now studies transportation and poverty issues for the Brookings Institution. 'People with cars work more hours, earn more income, and are generally more likely to be employed,' said Waller...

Public transit advocates invariably argue that allocating limited resources toward mass transit benefits the poor. By expanding the systems, they suggest, day-to-day life becomes more affordable for low-income households because the need for buying and maintaining an automobile is curtailed. Waller’s research reveals a different reality."

Thanks to Mark Hughes

Full Story: Hey buddy, can you spare a car?



Oh, great. This is just what

Oh, great. This is just what we need. MORE cars. Please, somebody, run me over. Just get it over with. I can't take this idiocy any longer.

How about we MAKE people who earn over a certain income take transit! Then all the people with power in our society will see how underfunded and structurally backwards and inefficient most of our transit is, and something will get done about it! After spending a year in Japan and seeing the smooth functioning of transit there and in Europe, this kind of suggestion seems childishly stupid.


The Foes Of Auto Mobility are out in full force over this issue. "More cars" are exactly what we need to address the issues of poverty and access. We could ask the hundreds of people who stayed in New Orleans because they lacked persoanl mobility what they thought about the idea if they weren't already dead. Our excessive focus on public transit is wasteful and expensive and invariably misdirects resources. It is as profoundly immoral to "MAKE people who earn over a certain income take transit" as it is to MAKE people who earn under a certain income take transit. But that's one of the characteristics of transit, to seek to influence behaviors. We bribe people with choice into using transit and we place barriers to choice for those that have none. Transit is so massively overfunded relative to its societal value that even the passengers are unwilling to pay even a fraction of their own marginal costs. 2003; $24.2 billion dollars in operating costs, $7.9 billion in fares. We subsidize every passenger $1.91 after giving them the enirety of the transit infrastructure. That was a $12.8 billion gift in 2003 or an additional $1.50 per ride. It's time to look to alternatives such as autos for the poor rather than throw more money at a system that is so self center that it thinks it is underfunded and unsupported.

Michael Lewyn's picture

The same old argument...

That transit is bad because it doesn't "pay for itself." But this argument has been repeatedly debunked by commentators who point out that (a) autos don't "pay for themselves" either because of the massive public subsidies for auto use (e.g. municipal requirements that landlords provide free parking to motorists, failure to charge motorists for externalities such as air pollution, etc.) and (b) transit has positive externalities (reduced air pollution, reduced congestion, etc.). See e.g. http://www.trainweb.org/mts/fmt/fmt11.html and
www.umass.edu/resec/faculty/ murphy/papers/JTSLitReview.pdf

Moreover, Cote is being a bit inconsistent attacking one type of subsidy and calling for another (autos for the poor).

Re New Orleans: maybe more people in New Orleans would be alive if Mayor Nagin had been willing to provide public transit to evacuate them. Instead, he followed the same policy government typically follows in this country: billions for government-run highways to evacuate drivers, and let the nondriving minority drown. Cote's claim that such policies are an "excessive focus on public transit" is the opposite of the truth.

Read What Is Written, Not What You Wish Were Written

Nowhere were the numerous and insidious negative features of transit mentioned yet the reply presumes the actual comments addressing cost effectiveness were intended as such. The only point was and remains that as long as we subsidize every transit ride $3.41 it is worthwhile to explore alternatives. No amount of vague complaints about other modes which might be receiving subsidies distracts from the extremely high costs and massive subsidies we do provide transit.

Read the stupid proposal

Cars vs. transit aside, the proposal is still stupid. For $100 billion, the projected cost of Waller's stupid little program, the feds could nearly quadruple the Earned Income Tax Credit -- a proven program which already does what Waller claims to want to do, which is to help provide a hand up for the working poor. And that way, poor people could spend their tax credits not just on cars, but on daycare, toothpaste, or whatever else they think that they need -- not what some Washington think-tank bureaucrat thinks they need.

Is Ten Years of Success Enough?

The program Waller suggests has been in place and working well here in Ventura County for a decade. The point of making it an automobile specific program is precisely because of the potential for diversions you mention in your suggestion for expanding the EITC. The point is specific that increased mobility is one of the most effective ways to lift people out of poverty. No doubt there are other ways to address poverty but the Waller proposal has the beauty of being inexpensive and targeted and relatively imune from the usual bureaucratic meddling.

Don't call auto subsides for the poor stupid unless you are prepared to refute the results. At least we can agree that expanding the EITC is -also- a generally good idea. We do what we can. On that note, I would normally agree with you that -most- people -can- make better decisions than some government program BUT these are not normal people, these are the poor. One of the characteristics of the poor is that they make poor decisions. We see it lifestyle choices, diet, criminality, etc. It isn't always their own fault either. They often never learned otherwise. That's why we have poverty programs, in part to teach how to make good choices. This is one of those programs.


i agree wholeheartedly with your comment. we need less cars. more efficient transit.

idiocy is right on the money. some "think-tank," huh? go back back to the drawing board and come back when you come up with an idea that is actually worth my time.

skewed analysis

it is disheartening sometimes that this is the level of discussion we have to contend with, isn't it?

I just realised another problem with this kind of reasoning. The friends I have who don't have a lot of money or a large income and who own a car spend an inordinate amount of time and money on their cars. Including their extra income gained from cars but not including the cost of their cars seriously skews the results of this kind of analysis.

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