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For many low-income families, automobiles may be key to greater opportunity.

America may be rethinking its love affair with cars.

We're driving less. Adjusted for population growth, the number of vehicle miles driven per year has dropped 8.9 percent since peaking in 2005. We're also buying fewer cars. While driving will accelerate as the economy improves, many Americans would rather not have to drive so much.

But a new study co-led by myself; Evelyn Blumenberg from the University of California, Los Angeles; and Casey Dawkins from the University of Maryland suggests there is at least one group that may need help to drive more, not less: low-income residents of high-poverty neighborhoods.

Our evidence comes from two Department of Housing and Urban Development demonstration programs: Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing and Welfare to Work Vouchers. Both were designed to test whether housing choice vouchers—that is, subsidies that allowed participants to choose where they live—propelled low-income households into greater economic security.

Taken together, data sets from these studies allowed us to examine neighborhood quality, neighborhood satisfaction, and employment outcomes for almost 12,000 families from 10 cities: Atlanta, Augusta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Fresno, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Spokane.

The results? Housing voucher recipients with cars tended to live and remain in higher-opportunity neighborhoods—places with lower poverty rates, higher social status, stronger housing markets, and lower health risks. Cars are also associated with improved neighborhood satisfaction and better employment outcomes. Among Moving to Opportunity families, those with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to remain employed.

The importance of automobiles arises not due to the inherent superiority of driving, but because public transit systems in most metropolitan areas are slow, inconvenient, and lack sufficient metropolitan-wide coverage to rival the automobile.

More research is needed to determine if the relationship is causal or associative, that is, whether the car is the catalyst or if there is something deeper at work, of which the car is simply one manifestation. Cars are expensive to purchase and to maintain, even more so for families with severely limited resources. A low-income household that is somehow able, inclined, or afforded the opportunity to buy a car might also do many other things to get ahead. Motivation, opportunity, or both could be key.

Yet our current findings are enough to raise important questions.

For example, should government welfare programs facilitate automobile access or ownership? In some states, a car would push families over the asset limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, making those families ineligible for help.

There are also environmental considerations. How might we balance the apparent benefits of car access for disadvantaged families with serious concerns about climate change and the need to reduce automobile emissions? Car-sharing in locations and at price points that are accessible for the working poor could be part of the solution.

For more than a century, cars have signified status. They became emblems of freedom. And by the 1950s, shortsighted transportation planning made them a necessity in many communities. Even as highly educated millennials and baby boomers fantasize about car-free cities, car access is still indispensable for many families seeking safety and economic security.

Top image: spirit of america /Shutterstock.com

This post originally appeared on the Urban Institute's Metrotrends blog, an Atlantic partner site.

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