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Putting Needy Families On the Road to Success

Sophia Goulbourne is a mother of two. In addition to getting a loan for her Infiniti, the family also secured funds to purchase a car for her husband.
Sophia Goulbourne is a mother of two. In addition to getting a loan for her Infiniti, the family also secured funds to purchase a car for her husband. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Imagine getting to work in Northern Virginia's suburbs, or picking up your children from day care before the agency starts charging late fees by the minute, or just getting groceries -- all without a car.

Now imagine buying a car while supporting a family of four on an income of no more than $40,000 a year or taking out a loan with interest as high as 30 percent.

Sophia Goulbourne, a 26-year-old mother of two who lives in Leesburg and works at a mall in Fairfax County, knows what it is like to have no car and no means of buying one. But two years ago, she discovered a car-buying program through an Oakton-based nonprofit organization that has helped her and her family move closer to financial independence.

"I could not do it on my own," said Goulbourne, who plans to pay off her $4,000 loan on a 1997 Infiniti this month, along with a smaller, more recent loan that paid for a major repair. "I didn't have the money; they gave me the money."

Northern Virginia Family Service has been participating since 1989 in a national Ways to Work program that guarantees small loans to low-income families. Many of those clients are single parents. Many have shaky credit records. Most of the loans are used to purchase cars.

The nonprofit group, in partnership with Virginia Commerce Bank, helps arrange and co-sign two-year loans of as much as $4,000 with interest rates of no more than 8 percent that allow these clients to buy cars and build good credit ratings. The group also offers classes to teach clients about managing their household finances.

In fact, the national organization behind the program said that while providing low-income families with private transportation is important in the suburban age, the greatest benefit of the program may be the rehabilitation of its clients' credit.

"Initially, it's all about the mobility," said Jeff Faulkner, president of Milwaukee-based Ways to Work. "Ultimately, it's all about the loan."

For example, while studies show that the purchase of a car enhances a poor family's income, cleaning up a person's credit history can also have a direct, long-term impact on his or her job prospects. That's because many employers now conduct credit checks on job applicants as part of the vetting process, Faulkner said.

"It becomes determinative of your employment," he said.

Teaching clients how to handle their finances and rebuilding their credit ratings with small loans also provides a practical way of allowing them to return to the commercial lending markets as savvy consumers who can improve their lives.

Faulkner said he likes to view the program as an American version of the "micro-loans" pioneered for people in the Third World by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus's Grameen Bank. That program began 40 years ago with $27 loans to furniture makers in Bangladesh.

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