Policy Documents

Car Ownership and Working Families: Barriers and Opportunities

Tanika Davis –
November 1, 2009

To commute to work and school, Baltimore resident Sheila Horsey needed a car. But with poor credit and a modest salary, horsey could not finance a used car with conventional credit. Instead, she negotiated with a small “buy here, pay here” used car dealer to purchase a nine-year-old car with a $3,000 down payment. For several years, the $400 monthly payment was a budget buster. “I tried to pay it,” Horsey says, “I actually did it for about a year, but eventually the car wound up breaking down. And the car lot actually closed down. Everybody was telling me that they were getting one over on me, but I really needed a car.” Without a car, Horsey’s everyday commute required transferring between four city buses in order to take her daughter to school and to go to work. 

Horsey’s story demonstrates the importance of cars to the everyday needs of working families. Across the country, households with income levels below $25,000 are nine times more likely to be without a car than those earning more. For workers such as horsey, affordability is often the most significant hurdle to car ownership. The difficulty of obtaining credit because of a poor credit score is also a barrier to purchasing and maintaining a car. Even obtaining a driver’s license can be an obstacle for some people. But without a car, job opportunities may be limited by the job’s location with respect to where the person lives. The fringes of metropolitan areas are often poorly served, or not served at all, by public transportation. The limited hours of public transportation, particularly for shift and weekend jobs, create additional transportation challenges for workers like horsey