Poverty and cars
Via Laura at 11d, I read this thread on cities vs. suburbs at Matthew Yglesias’ blog. One comment jumped out at me:
"What’s with this "suburbia is cheaper" claim? Where I live, suburbia is
more expensive (which is why low income people live in cities and older
I’m not sure overall which is cheaper. It’s certainly true that far-out suburbs are cheaper than close-in suburbs (at least in the DC area, I think elsewhere too.) That’s why Prince William county just passed a harsh anti-illegal immigrant measure — lots of immigrants have moved there, because a bunch of people can share a house for a lot less than renting small apartments close in. And there’s lots of evidence that everything from food to bank fees to insurance costs more for residents of poor inner city neighborhoods.
So why don’t more poor people move to the suburbs? The US Department of Housing and Urban Development did an experiment called Moving to Opportunity where people who lived in public housing were divided into 3 groups, one that was offered Section 8 housing vouchers that could be used anywhere they chose, one that was offered special vouchers that could only be used in low-poverty neighborhoods, and one that was not offered vouchers, but continued to live in public housing. This was a voluntary program, so everyone in it had said that they wanted to move. One of the interesting findings is that the majority of the people who used the unrestricted vouchers moved into neighborhoods that were still high poverty — not as high as the public housing they came from, but still more than 20 percent.
Under the voucher program, what you pay is based on your income, not the rent, and you can rent any house up to what HUD calls the "fair market rent" for the metro area. So why did the voucher recipients stay in high poverty neighborhoods? If the researchers asked this, I haven’t found the report that says it. But I can take some guesses: Because those are the neighborhoods that they knew, where their friends and family lived, where they knew how to navigate the transportation system and which grocery store had the best deals. Because landlords discriminated against them — or because they were afraid that they might. Because they didn’t have cars, and the upfront cost of buying a car is obvious, while the added costs of buying food in inner-city neighborhoods is hidden.
All this is mostly a long way of saying that I’m not sure that the fact that poor people live in inner cities proves that they’re cheaper than suburbs.
So, Yglesias argues that the suburbs are only so cheap because the roads and other infrastructure are so heavily subsidized. Lisa Margonelli says that it’s a myth that people will drive less if gas prices get high enough. She argues that high gas prices have hit the poor the most. I think this is probably right — if people’s driving
is responsive to gas prices, it’s clearly only in the very long run, as
people choose where to work and live. Somewhat less plausibly, Richard Brodsky claims that Bloomberg’s proposed congestion pricing plan for driving in Manhattan would be regressive, hurting poor and middle-income drivers the most. I’m pretty dubious about the idea that many poor New Yorkers own cars.
But outside of New York, I think the evidence is overwhelming that helping low-income families own cars is a highly cost-effective anti-poverty strategy. (We’ve actually just donated our old car to Vehicles for Change, an organization that does this.) It opens up a world of job opportunities, lets people shop at lower-cost stores, go to church and doctor’s offices and more. In an ideal world, you could do all these things by public transportation, but in most of the US you can’t.
So, how do we help the environment without penalizing low-income families? I still think that some version of Pay at the Pump auto insurance would be a good thing. It would convert a big part of the fixed cost of owning a car into a variable cost of driving it, so would both make car ownership more affordable for the poor, and discourage driving at the margin. School reform isn’t usually thought of as part of an environmental agenda, but if you could improve urban schools to the point that they seemed like a reasonable alternative for families who have options, more of them would choose to live in cities.