- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

Earlene Tracey cried this week as she was shown the shiny, white, soon-to-be-hers 1990 Chrysler New Yorker for the first time.
"Oh, this is great! I love this," she said.
Ms. Tracey is buying the newly repaired car for less than $1,000 from Vehicles for Change, a nonprofit organization in Elkridge, Md., that provides automobiles to low-income families.
Ms. Tracey, who lives in Severn, Md., with her three children, will pay off her car in one year, giving her a favorable credit history.
And, if she is like most of the 87 other clients Vehicles for Change has surveyed, she also will boost her earnings by $4,558 a year, get regular health care, experience less stress and do more fun activities with her children, friends and family, said the nonprofit group's executive director, Martin Schwartz.
"This is a wonderful program to be part of. It really, really makes a difference," Mr. Schwartz said.
Vehicles for Change, he said, has placed 465 cars in the Washington-Baltimore area and will be giving its first five cars to D.C. residents in early December.
People who donate vehicles typically take a tax deduction for their gift.
Vehicles for Change is one of several dozen programs around the nation helping needy families get reliable automobiles, said the National Economic Development and Law Center, an advocacy and research group in Oakland, Calif.
Most low-income car-ownership programs started after the 1996 welfare-reform law was enacted. Many programs have become so successful they are being invited into nearby communities and even other states, said program directors.
What's needed, program directors said, is a steady supply of donated vehicles, in-house garages and mechanics, and public-private partnerships to provide referrals, auto parts and relationships with lenders and insurance companies.
Welfare-to-work families need automobiles regardless of whether they live in rural or urban areas, program directors said.
Mass transit isn't always viable "here, it's three buses to a job," said Karin Westdyk, program director of Strengthen Our Sisters, a group in West Milford, N.J., that provides shelter and employment services to needy women. The shelter's Cars for Success program has provided 150 cars to needy women since 1998.
In Los Angeles, half of welfare recipients use mass transit to get to work, and half use cars, but both modes of transit are problematic, wrote researchers Evelyn Blumenberg and Paul Ong, who are with the School of Public Policy and Social Research at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Transit-dependent parents are restricted to jobs and child care on their bus or train routes, and off-peak schedules make it difficult to take weekend or evening jobs, the researchers wrote.
Of the welfare recipients who go to jobs in a car, 34 percent have to ask for rides from someone else, and 22 percent borrow a car, they said.
It's very hard for welfare recipients and people with bad credit to buy a good car, said Diana Spatz, executive director of Low-Income Families' Empowerment Network Through Education, an Oakland, Calif., group that helps welfare families.
One mother has twice paid $500 for a car off a lot "and now neither of them work," Ms. Spatz said.
"To be self-sufficient, you have to get on your own two feet and get around the corner and be on a schedule paying your bills," said Hal Colston, founder of the Good News Garage in Burlington, Vt., which has sold 1,000 cars to low-income families.
Interest in the program "is burgeoning," said Mr. Colston, adding that his program serves families in neighboring states as well.
Still, more reform is needed to help poor families obtain cars, said Anne Kim, welfare analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank.
Poor Americans are virtually shut out of the mainstream auto-financing market because of poor credit, little or no savings and erratic work histories, Ms. Kim said. As a result, families have to turn to "subprime" lenders who charge very high interest rates and require hefty down payments, she wrote in a paper this month on cars, loans and the working poor.
Ms. Kim recommends that Congress expand the federal Community Reinvestment Act, which helps increase the availability of credit to low-income and underserved communities, to include auto-financing companies.
Ms. Kim also wants to see "financial literacy" included in welfare-to-work programs so recipients can learn how to improve their credit ratings and avoid predatory lenders.
Lynnette Smith, 23, a single mother from Baltimore, is happy to make monthly payments for the 1991 Buick she got from Vehicles for Change.
"This is going to help improve my credit, definitely," she said.


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