Access to cars helps poorer residents achieve better life outcomes

Cars are expensive to own and operate yet a new study suggests they can help poorer residents:

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.

The importance of automobiles arises not due to the inherent superiority of driving, but because public transit systems in most metropolitan areas are slow, inconvenient, and lack sufficient metropolitan-wide coverage to rival the automobile.

More research is needed to determine if the relationship is causal or associative, that is, whether the car is the catalyst or if there is something deeper at work, of which the car is simply one manifestation. Cars are expensive to purchase and to maintain, even more so for families with severely limited resources. 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. Motivation, opportunity, or both could be key.

Yet our current findings are enough to raise important questions.

For example, should government welfare programs facilitate automobile access or ownership? In some states, a car would push families over the asset limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, making those families ineligible for help.

In a society that often structures space around cars, this is not too surprising, particularly for poorer residents in suburbs and more sprawling areas. Yet, as this summary notes, providing cars is not necessarily easy (expensive) or desirable in the long run (perpetuating problems with cars like pollution and sprawl).

This could lead to some interesting consequences for poorer Americans. If they are increasingly in suburbs or are pushed out of walkable urban neighborhoods by gentrifiers, having to have a car is another barrier to moving up the economic ladder. In other words, walkable neighborhoods – think New Urbanism –  are the rage amongst urban millennials and others who want vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods. But, their quest for such spaces may not leave much room who would really benefit the most from cheaper transportation through walkability and mass transit.

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