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To get off welfare, people need to be behind the wheel (Larry MacDougal)
To get off welfare, people need to be behind the wheel (Larry MacDougal)

Peter Shawn Taylor

Drive a car, find a job Add to ...

Despite their recent reputation as environmental scourges, cars are still tremendously useful things. This is particularly so when it comes to getting off welfare and into work. Policies that reduce access to cars among low-income or unemployed people make it tougher to find work.

The link between car ownership and employment should be readily obvious and intuitive. The more jobs that can be included in a search, the greater the chance of finding a good match. And having a car opens up far more job possibilities than relying on public transit.

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Research by urban planner Evelyn Blumenberg at the University of California, Los Angeles, has shown that an unemployed resident of the low-income L.A. neighbourhood of Watts could reach 59 times more potential job opportunities by car than would be possible on the bus or subway.

Public transit is limited to routes and times that may not provide access to certain jobs. Many entry-level jobs, such as building security or office cleaning, require off-peak hours of work or are located in areas not well served by buses. These problems are acute in smaller cities that lack comprehensive transit systems.

It is also the case, exhaustively proved by U.S. research, that car owners tend to earn more per hour and work more hours per week. The employment rate for car owners in one study was nearly 80 per cent, compared with 53 per cent for non-owners. And once a job is found, car commuting tends to reduce absenteeism and lateness.



So, given that access to a car is an unmistakably good thing for anyone looking for work, why do some provinces still force welfare applicants to sell their cars?


There is a clear causal link between access to a car and employment. It is not simply the case that people with a job can afford a car, but rather that having access to a car improves the odds of finding and keeping a job.

Lastly, having a car makes many other aspects of life much easier. Anyone who finds themselves time-constrained - a single mother, for instance - can appreciate the advantages of a car over bus when trying to make multiple stops in the morning to daycare, shopping or work.

While there is a lack of Canadian data to replicate U.S. findings, access to transportation shows up as a significant barrier to employment in surveys of Canadian welfare recipients. Cars are simply better at reducing this barrier than buses.

So, given that access to a car is an unmistakably good thing for anyone looking for work, why do some provinces still force welfare applicants to sell their cars?

In British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, equity in a car over a certain limit is counted as income when calculating eligibility for social assistance. The limit varies from $5,000 in B.C. to $10,000 in the other provinces. Anyone with a car worth more than this amount could be forced to sell or trade down in order to qualify for benefits.

But such a policy holds no advantage for society at large. Vehicle-asset tests are a holdover from an older, more punitive era of welfare. Today, the primary goal of social assistance is to move people as quickly as possible into the world of work. Losing access to a car or trading down to a less-reliable model makes this more difficult.

Considering the large cohort of current employment-insurance recipients who may soon be applying for provincial social-assistance benefits, and thus forced to sell the family vehicle, this is no trivial matter.

A majority of American states exempt one vehicle per household from social-assistance eligibility and there is a concerted lobbying campaign to force the remaining states to do likewise. There are also about 170 charitable programs in the United States that match low-income families with low-cost cars. Canada could benefit from similar efforts.

If we really want to help people get off welfare and into work, we should be looking for ways to help them get cars.

Peter Shawn Taylor is author of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy report The Road out of Poverty.

 

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