NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What The Poor Need: Cars

August 21, 2001

Thanks to the automobile, in the century just past urban America evolved from high-density, high-rise commercial and housing centers to decentralized clusters of residential housing and employment.

However, the poor have often been left behind in decaying high-rise public housing projects, in inner city areas with few job opportunities. How can inner city residents get to places where there are jobs? A solution frequently proposed is mass transit, including multibillion-dollar light rail projects.

However, researchers have identified a more effective solution to the mobility problems of the poor: the car. Researchers at the City University of New York found that, even in an area with easy access to transit buses and subways, access to a car is a decisive factor in promoting the economic self-sufficiency of the poor.

Looking for the most important factors in achieving economic self-sufficiency for low-income families, the researchers surveyed 400 households in two public-housing projects for the poor in New York City.

According to their study in the Journal of Urban Affairs, the two most important factors determining economic self-sufficiency were whether adults in the household had some work experience and whether they had a car.

  • Just 28 percent of the childless households without a car and work experience were economically self-sufficient.
  • Having some work experience (but no car) more than doubled their likelihood of self-sufficiency.
  • Having a car (but no work experience) boosted the chances of self- sufficiency to 74 percent.
  • Having both work experience and a car boosted their chances of self-sufficiency to 94 percent.

Some work experience combined with access to a car boosted the chances of households with children even more dramatically, raising the rate of self-sufficiency from 3 percent to 52 percent.

Source: Samuel R. Staley and Leonard C. Gilroy (both Reason Public Policy Institute), "Driving Forces...Cars As Life Rafts For The Urban Poor," Bridge News Service, August 7, 2001.


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