The family of Felisha Jackson and James Williams, along with their children Semaj, 6, and Mekhi, 4, received a Mercury Sable from D.C. nonprofit Family Matters through its Ways to Work program. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

How important is a car to success on the job?

Plenty, Family Matters of Greater Washington thinks.

Through a partnership with Wal-Mart and PNC Bank, and backed in part by a federal grant, the local nonprofit has teamed with a Milwaukee-based charity called Ways to Work to give 200 poor families up to $6,000 to buy a used car.

Program officials said they believe access to a car helps struggling families cut down on absences from work and allows them to spend more time at home.

“I had a client say she almost lost her job not because she was bad but because she couldn’t get there,” said Tonya Jackson Smallwood, chief executive of Family Matters of Greater Washington, which piloted the effort in the District last year. “From an employment perspective, 94 percent of our clients end up maintaining or improving on the job. More than two-thirds cite that their absenteeism has been reduced.”

Tonya Jackson Smallwood, Family Matters’ chief executive. (Evy Mages/For Capital Business)

Program participants are required to take financial literacy classes and receive counseling while in the program, which grants 30 months to complete the loan payment. Nonprofit officials say the average payment is $200 each month with a flat 8 percent interest rate. The program also provides a maximum of $1,500 to participating families whose car needs repairs. Eligibility is limited to families that earn less than 80 percent of the local median income.

Family Matters did a soft launch in the District in 2011, providing loans to 50 families that responded to flyers and word of mouth. It has now begun taking applications for this year’s recipients.

The nonprofit is looking to secure more financial assistance. Though Ways to Work provides District-based Family Matters with the money to loan to families, Family Matters actually serves as guarantor if the loans are not repaid. Also, after hiring two full-time and one part-time employees and putting up marketing and other operating expenses, nonprofit officials estimate the cost of the program to be $350,000 each year, of which $250,000 came from its budget.

Wal-Mart gave the District program a $150,000 grant over three years as part of a $4 million effort to expand the car loan program across the country.

“They have incredible data that they’ve collected that measures the impact on lives by providing reliable transportation for low-income, underemployed individuals,” said Michelle Gilliard, director of the Wal-Mart Foundation.

Ways to Work created the program in 1984, operating exclusively in Wisconsin until it expanded nationally in 2005 securing investors such as Prudential, Bank of America, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Kresge Foundation to provide the loan capital.

Program officials say the 8 percent interest that families pay on the loans covers 40 percent of Ways to Work operating costs.

“We’re a very unique approach to community reinvestment lending,” said Jeffrey Faulkner, president of Ways to Work. “There’s a lot of demand in our investment pool because of the risk model.”