Transportation assistance for low-income workers is complex, expensive, and rife with unintended consequences. Policymakers confuse ends and means when job access strategies are too focused on public transit systems. The policy challenge is helping low-income workers get to distant jobs on difficult schedules, but too often both policymakers and decisionmakers act as if the challenge is devising a way to make public transit "good enough" to serve the reverse commutes of low-income workers. This represents both a bias and a blind spot. The bias lies in our willingness to consign poor people to barely functioning public systems from which higher-income citizens routinely withdraw (as in public schools, public health, public safety, and public space). The bias is expressed in the overheard comment of one senior official from a national public transit organization, "Show me a thirty-year-old man on a bus,; and I'll show you a failure."
The blind spot is cars. In most cases, the shortest distance between a poor person and a job is along a line driven in a car. Prosperity in America has always been strongly related to mobility and poor people work hard for access to opportunities. For both the rural and inner-city poor, access means being able to reach the prosperous suburbs of our booming metropolitan economies, and mobility means having the private automobile necessary for the trip. The most important response to the policy challenge of job access for those leaving welfare is the continued and expanded use of cars by low-income workers. Across the country, state and local decisionmakers are inventing new programs to do just that and devising new ways that public funds can help.
This report presents survey and field research on the ten states with the largest (as of January 1998) numbers of families receiving assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Block Grant (TANF), which is a mix of federal and matching state funds. (Throughout this report, we use TANF to refer to both state and federal funds.) These ten states collectively represent two-thirds of the national caseload: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington. The authors surveyed officials in a variety of; relevant state departments and interviewed local officials and public transit operators in cities and rural counties; throughout the ten states. This research informs both their analysis of transportation assistance and recommendations to policymakers. (author abstract)