Trump’s welfare plan leaves tran­sit needs on side of the road

Ad­vo­cates fear re­cip­i­ents won’t have re­li­able ways to reach job cen­ters

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY MARTINE POW­ERS martine.pow­ers@wash­post.com

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s or­der tough­en­ing work re­quire­ments for peo­ple who re­ceive welfare and other forms of pub­lic as­sis­tance lacks a ma­jor com­po­nent of the 1990s-era re­form: trans­porta­tion.

When Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton launched his land­mark ef­fort to move Amer­i­cans from welfare to work more than 20 years ago, it sparked sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment in trans­porta­tion for those who did not own a car or have ac­cess to af­ford­able or re­li­able pub­lic tran­sit.

The Clin­ton plan re­quired those re­ceiv­ing as­sis­tance to work or look for work. Many of those welfare re­cip­i­ents ben­e­fited from the fed­er­ally funded Bridges to Work pro­gram, a $17 mil­lion in­vest­ment from the De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment that helped pro­vide new trans­porta­tion ser­vices in five ci­ties around the coun­try.

In Bal­ti­more, a now-de­funct, state-funded pro­gram called “Ca­reer Car­a­van” fer­ried peo­ple to dense job cen­ters in Howard County.

And in Florida, state law­mak­ers en­cour­aged pri­vate sup­port for a pro­gram called “Char­ity Cars,” which loaned or do­nated used ve­hi­cles to welfare re­cip­i­ents to help them travel to job training pro­grams, in­ter­views and jobs.

But ad­vo­cates for those who rely on pub­lic as­sis­tance say the Trump plan, high­lighted in sev­eral re­cent ex­ec­u­tive or­ders, in­creases work re­quire­ments with­out tak­ing into ac­count that those who need the ben­e­fits have lit­tle or no ac­cess to trans­porta­tion.

In an ex­ec­u­tive or­der signed last month, Pres­i­dent Trump di­rected fed­eral agencies to hunt for new ways to limit the num­ber of peo­ple who would qual­ify for as­sis­tance.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials also have pushed states to im­pose work re­quire­ments for Med­i­caid, so able-bod­ied re­cip­i­ents would be re­quired to work a cer­tain num­ber of hours per week to re­ceive state-sub­si­dized health care. They have pro­posed in­creas­ing ex­ist­ing work re­quire­ments for peo­ple who re­ceive food stamps. And they want to raise the age limit for the el­derly who are ex­empt from the work re­quire­ment.

“Since the 1990s, things have be­come much more dif­fi­cult for welfare re­cip­i­ents,” said Eve­lyn Blu­men­berg, a pro­fes­sor at the Luskin School of Pub­lic Af­fairs at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les. “And I have not seen an up­swell in move­ment for sup­port­ing the trans­porta­tion part of this.”

The link be­tween ac­cess to re­li­able trans­porta­tion and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties is well­doc­u­mented. Stud­ies show that trans­porta­tion, or the lack thereof, re­mains the great­est bar­rier to low-in­come peo­ple seek­ing steady em­ploy­ment.

And un­der pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have ac­knowl­edged that re­la­tion­ship. In a 1998 Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port, of­fi­cials said in­creas­ing funding to pro­grams that help or­ga­nize or pay for welfare re­cip­i­ents’ com­mutes to job cen­ters would be one of the most ef­fec­tive ways to ul­ti­mately get peo­ple on solid fi­nan­cial foot­ing and off welfare.

“With­out ad­e­quate trans­porta­tion, welfare re­cip­i­ents face sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers in try­ing to move from welfare to work,” the re­port said. “These chal­lenges are par­tic­u­larly acute for ur­ban moth­ers re­ceiv­ing welfare who do not own cars and must make mul­ti­ple trips each day to ac­com­mo­date child care and other do­mes­tic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

Trans­porta­tion ser­vices were a crit­i­cal part of welfare re­form un­der Clin­ton and Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan. The no­tion of “re­cip­ro­cal obli­ga­tion” — that the gov­ern­ment’s role in pub­lic as­sis­tance is to help peo­ple help them­selves — re­quired that the gov­ern­ment in­vest sig­nif­i­cantly in se­condary pro­grams related to trans­porta­tion, child care and job training, which would help peo­ple find qual­ity work that would en­able them to even­tu­ally stop re­ly­ing on the gov­ern­ment for ba­sic needs.

But in re­cent years, fed­eral funding for Tem­po­rary As­sis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies, the fed­eral welfare pro­gram, has re­mained stag­nant. The value of those dol­lars also has de­clined, rel­a­tive to in­fla­tion.

So states have had to con­cen­trate those lim­ited re­sources on pro­vid­ing ba­sic fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to fam­i­lies and have had to cut back on the se­condary ser­vices that sup­port peo­ple try­ing to ful­fill the em­ploy­ment re­quire­ments that al­low them to re­ceive the ben­e­fits in the first place.

Elaine Wax­man, se­nior fel­low at the Ur­ban In­sti­tute, said trans­porta­tion pro­grams are usu­ally the first thing on the chop­ping block.

“Fed­eral al­lo­ca­tions don’t keep pace with what the states need to sup­port low-in­come work­ers, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to trans­porta­tion,” said Wax­man, who spe­cial­izes in safety-net pro­grams.

“It’s not nec­es­sar­ily that there’s a lack of in­ter­est in pro­vid­ing these pro­grams,” Blu­men­berg said. “But states and coun­ties are us­ing their funds to pro­vide that core ben­e­fit, and some of these pro­grams like trans­porta­tion have gone by the way­side.”

But the changes pro­posed by Trump stand to ex­ac­er­bate the dif­fi­cul­ties low-in­come Amer­i­cans face. While the econ­omy has grown in re­cent years and the job mar­ket is on the up­swing, those jobs are in­creas­ingly con­cen­trated in sub­ur­ban ar­eas, at of­fice parks and industrial sec­tors that are dif­fi­cult to reach by pub­lic tran­sit.

“Jobs are sub­ur­ban­iz­ing, poverty is sub­ur­ban­iz­ing, and peo­ple are liv­ing in very dis­persed en­vi­ron­ments — which makes ac­cess­ing these jobs by modes other than a car re­ally dif­fi­cult and time-con­sum­ing,” Blu­men­berg said.

Ad­vo­cates for the so­cial safety net also are con­cerned about an­other as­pect of the pro­posed welfare re­form that could af­fect re­cip­i­ents’ ac­cess to jobs: higher lim­its on ve­hic­u­lar as­sets.

In Wis­con­sin, peo­ple are not al­lowed to re­ceive welfare if they have a ve­hi­cle val­ued at more than $20,000. In Cal­i­for­nia, that limit is as low as $4,650, although peo­ple can ap­ply for waivers.

Those as­set lim­i­ta­tions can be par­tic­u­larly detri­men­tal for low­in­come peo­ple who may own a car from a time when they were em­ployed but af­ter a job loss were no longer able to pay for in­sur­ance or re­pairs so they can’t use it to reach em­ploy­ment cen­ters or job in­ter­views.

With those re­stric­tions in mind, some ci­ties and states have leaned to­ward at­tempt­ing to find ways to pro­vide free or re­duced­price tran­sit passes for low-in­come res­i­dents. But there is a prob­lem with those pro­grams: Free or re­duced-cost pub­lic tran­sit is of­ten not as help­ful to poor peo­ple as hav­ing ac­cess to a car — par­tic­u­larly for those who don’t live in ar­eas with good pub­lic tran­sit sys­tems.

“It’s a touchy sub­ject in trans­porta­tion cir­cles, where funds are fo­cused on in­creas­ing ac­cess to pub­lic tran­sit, even though poor peo­ple more than any­one need the flex­i­bil­ity and in­stant mo­bil­ity of hav­ing a car,” Blu­men­berg said.

“Un­for­tu­nately,” she added, “in almost ev­ery sin­gle neigh­bor­hood con­text, pub­lic tran­sit does not pro­vide the same job op­por­tu­ni­ties as hav­ing an au­to­mo­bile.”

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