The Trump administration’s order toughening work requirements for people who receive welfare and other forms of public assistance lacks a major component of the 1990s-era reform: transportation.
When President Bill Clinton launched his landmark effort to move Americans from welfare to work more than 20 years ago, it sparked significant investment in transportation for those who did not own a car or have access to affordable or reliable public transit.
The Clinton plan required those receiving assistance to work or look for work. Many of those welfare recipients benefited from the federally funded Bridges to Work program, a $17 million investment from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that helped provide new transportation services in five cities around the country.
In Baltimore, a now-defunct, state-funded program called “Career Caravan” ferried people to dense job centers in Howard County.
And in Florida, state lawmakers encouraged private support for a program called “Charity Cars,” which loaned or donated used vehicles to welfare recipients to help them travel to job training programs, interviews and jobs.
But advocates for those who rely on public assistance say the Trump plan, highlighted in several recent executive orders, increases work requirements without taking into account that those who need the benefits have little or no access to transportation.
In an executive order signed last month, President Trump directed federal agencies to hunt for new ways to limit the number of people who would qualify for assistance.
Federal officials also have pushed states to impose work requirements for Medicaid, so able-bodied recipients would be required to work a certain number of hours per week to receive state-subsidized health care. They have proposed increasing existing work requirements for people who receive food stamps. And they want to raise the age limit for the elderly who are exempt from the work requirement.
“Since the 1990s, things have become much more difficult for welfare recipients,” said Evelyn Blumenberg, a professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California at Los Angeles. “And I have not seen an upswell in movement for supporting the transportation part of this.”
The link between access to reliable transportation and employment opportunities is well-documented. Studies show that transportation, or the lack thereof, remains the greatest barrier to low-income people seeking steady employment.
And under previous administrations, government officials have acknowledged that relationship. In a 1998 Government Accountability Office report, officials said increasing funding to programs that help organize or pay for welfare recipients’ commutes to job centers would be one of the most effective ways to ultimately get people on solid financial footing and off welfare.
“Without adequate transportation, welfare recipients face significant barriers in trying to move from welfare to work,” the report said. “These challenges are particularly acute for urban mothers receiving welfare who do not own cars and must make multiple trips each day to accommodate child care and other domestic responsibilities.”
Transportation services were a critical part of welfare reform under Clinton and President Ronald Reagan. The notion of “reciprocal obligation” — that the government’s role in public assistance is to help people help themselves — required that the government invest significantly in secondary programs related to transportation, child care and job training, which would help people find quality work that would enable them to eventually stop relying on the government for basic needs.
But in recent years, federal funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal welfare program, has remained stagnant. The value of those dollars also has declined, relative to inflation.
So states have had to concentrate those limited resources on providing basic financial assistance to families and have had to cut back on the secondary services that support people trying to fulfill the employment requirements that allow them to receive the benefits in the first place.
Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said transportation programs are usually the first thing on the chopping block.
“Federal allocations don’t keep pace with what the states need to support low-income workers, particularly when it comes to transportation,” said Waxman, who specializes in safety-net programs.
“It’s not necessarily that there’s a lack of interest in providing these programs,” Blumenberg said. “But states and counties are using their funds to provide that core benefit, and some of these programs like transportation have gone by the wayside.”
But the changes proposed by Trump stand to exacerbate the difficulties low-income Americans face. While the economy has grown in recent years and the job market is on the upswing, those jobs are increasingly concentrated in suburban areas, at office parks and industrial sectors that are difficult to reach by public transit.
“Jobs are suburbanizing, poverty is suburbanizing, and people are living in very dispersed environments — which makes accessing these jobs by modes other than a car really difficult and time-consuming,” Blumenberg said.
Advocates for the social safety net also are concerned about another aspect of the proposed welfare reform that could affect recipients’ access to jobs: higher limits on vehicular assets.
In Wisconsin, people are not allowed to receive welfare if they have a vehicle valued at more than $20,000. In California, that limit is as low as $4,650, although people can apply for waivers.
Those asset limitations can be particularly detrimental for low-income people who may own a car from a time when they were employed but after a job loss were no longer able to pay for insurance or repairs so they can’t use it to reach employment centers or job interviews.
With those restrictions in mind, some cities and states have leaned toward attempting to find ways to provide free or reduced-price transit passes for low-income residents. But there is a problem with those programs: Free or reduced-cost public transit is often not as helpful to poor people as having access to a car — particularly for those who don’t live in areas with good public transit systems.
“It’s a touchy subject in transportation circles, where funds are focused on increasing access to public transit, even though poor people more than anyone need the flexibility and instant mobility of having a car,” Blumenberg said.
“Unfortunately,” she added, “in almost every single neighborhood context, public transit does not provide the same job opportunities as having an automobile.”