Putting America Back to Work


A recent study from a group of researchers at the Urban Institute, the University of Maryland, and UCLA found that giving families access to greater opportunity in stable housing and high-quality neighborhoods wasn't enough to help them escape the grip of poverty. Interestingly, one of the challenges these families faced was the lack of a car. The data suggested that families with cars were able to move to neighborhoods with less poverty, less unemployment, and better schools.

Could it be that providing access to reliable vehicles is a successful anti-poverty strategy?

In the District of Columbia, an estimated 20 percent of families live in poverty. That's one out of five D.C residents, the third highest of any jurisdiction in the U.S. D.C.'s unemployment rate hovers at 8.1 percent, as compared to the national rate of 6.7 percent. And with many individuals no longer looking for jobs, the real number of unemployed could be significantly higher

As policymakers grapple with the factors that keep families stuck in poverty – including a lack of jobs, stagnant wages, to barriers that keep people from reentering the workforce or accessing higher paying jobs – the impact of transportation on job access is getting increased attention.

A recent Brookings Institution report found that only one quarter of low-income jobs across the nation are accessible by public transportation. Here in D.C., despite being ranked as one of the nation's top metro systems, the study found that high-skill residents have much better access to high-skill jobs via transit than do low-skill residents to low-skill jobs.

In response to these findings, Family Matters of Greater Washington, the District's oldest family-serving organization, launched the Ways to Work program in 2012, serving residents of the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland. Ways to Work is a national community lending program that provides low- to moderate-income families the opportunity to access low-cost loans to assist in the purchase or repair of used cars needed to more easily meet job demands while raising children.

The program, available to individuals in need of a reliable vehicle whose credit rating does not allow them to get a traditional loan or who could only do so at a very high interest rate, also provides financial education that helps them manage their household budget and adopt the skills needed to pay back the loan and restore their credit.

An independent study commissioned found that more than 90 percent of program participants reported that their car loan helped them maintain or improve their employment situation, with 75 percent reporting an increase in earnings, 67 percent opening a bank account, and 80 percent moving their children to more appropriate childcare providers.

Ways to Work currently operates 44 sites in 22 states and to date has helped nearly 34,500 families access more than $71 million in affordable loans. The program also provides focused financial education, credit repair guidance, and individual coaching that helps families become financially capable and self-sufficient. The majority of Ways to Work loan recipients are single mothers who make multiple stops throughout the day in order to transport children to and from childcare, commute to and from work, and secure basic necessities for their families.

Our nation's intractable unemployment rate and sluggish economic recovery means we have to find creative ways to address the barriers that are keeping more Americans from accessing the American Dream. The Ways to Work program is one example of how we can build our economy by giving hard-working families a hand up rather than a hand out.

Tonya Jackson Smallwood is the president and CEO of Family Matters of Greater Washington. One of the oldest, nationally accredited social services organizations in the nation.

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Putting America Back to Work

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