Incredibly, an estimated 11 million people nationwide are believed to have lost their driver’s licenses because of debts owed to or ordered by the government, often for offenses having nothing to do with motor vehicle safety, like minor drug offenses or missed payments for child support — not for unsafe or drunk driving. That’s roughly 1 in every 20 drivers, a cohort tilted heavily toward people of color. For those whose licenses are suspended, the effect is to set a poverty trap while doing nothing to enhance public safety.
Several states, as well as the District of Columbia, have halted such license suspensions, including, just since 2018, Montana, Virginia, West Virginia, Idaho and Mississippi. Elsewhere, however, the practice persists on autopilot, either unexamined or because states, indifferent to soaking the poor, regard it as an effective way to raise revenue for state and local coffers.
The costs of that policy are steep and overlooked. Take away driving privileges from someone already too strapped by debt to cover basic living costs, and it may become impossible for that person to get to work and hold down a job. Or, if the person drives anyway — as most do, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators — they face the risk of fines and months of jail time.
Under the status quo in states that suspend licenses for non-payments, police face the additional burden of being expected to enforce those suspensions; forced into the role of debt collectors, they then become the subject of additional resentment and hostility. In 2015 alone, Washington state troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with license suspensions for non-driving offenses, according to the state’s own calculations. How does that advance public safety or welfare, especially during a pandemic?
In the Senate, a bill that would encourage states to repeal such laws was introduced this month. In a hopeful sign, a Republican and a Democrat are its two main sponsors: Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
The measure offers modest incentives to do the right thing. Congress would authorize $20 million a year over the next five years to help states cover the costs of making the change. And the bill would end a major federal incentive for states to do the wrong thing: a measure that slashes highway funding for states that fail to suspend licenses.
Advocates across the ideological spectrum — the Koch network to the ACLU — support the bill, known as the Driving for Opportunity Act. And no wonder: It doesn’t take much explaining to see that punishing poverty is a losing strategy, and one this country can ill afford.