Outside of major cities in the United States, public transportation is not always well developed in many communities. Cars and other personal vehicles dominate the American culture, so getting where they have to go each day is especially challenging for low-income families. Without a car of their own, they are often stuck in poverty.
It is a happy moment for 27-year-old Sean Rock, a radio technician in Baltimore. He is getting a car. "I feel great. It is going to help me with transportation, getting back and forth to work, and with my family chores that I need to get done and taking my son to basketball practices, swimming lessons."
As a father of three children, Rock says life was rough without a car for the last two years.
Ivan Smith is another Baltimore man who is getting a car. And for the 20-year-old plumber it is his very first. "Now I have a car, I can make a lot more money by doing other side jobs,” he says. “And I can go hang out with my buddies and be happy."
What makes it possible for Rock and Smith to have such confidence is a program called Vehicles for Change. It is a non-profit organization that repairs and provides donated vehicles to low-income families at a minimal price to help them stay employed.
Martin Schwartz is the organization's executive director. He co-founded it in October 1999 with an auto parts distribution company that is no longer in business.
"We looked at the problems with low-income families in gaining and maintaining employment. Two of the major barriers for them to get out of poverty were transportation and childcare,” Schwartz says. “So we looked into several easy ways to provide transportation. All of our cars today are donated mostly by individuals. We do advertising in local radio, in local newspapers and a little bit on TV, and do a lot of word of mouth and presentations."
Schwartz says in the past seven years Vehicles for Change has awarded more than 2,100 cars to low-income families in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
"All of our recipients come through what we call sponsor agencies. Those sponsor agencies are job readiness programs. They might be domestic violence programs, they can be a homeless shelter. They work with these individuals to help them make a better life for themselves. And they identify the folks for us who would get a car."
Qualified individuals attend an orientation program to learn about safe driving and automobile insurance. They then buy the car with the help of a loan for $900 to $1,000.
"Once our recipient gets a car they get a six month, 6,000 mile warranty. They always can bring it back here. We probably have 30 garages throughout Maryland and Virginia who do the repairs for us."
Schwartz says that many of the people who get a car from Vehicles for Change are single mothers with two to three children. Nephakedda Brown, a single mother of two kids, is one of them. She got her sports utility vehicle 10 months ago while she was staying in a shelter.
"There has been a tremendous change. I have been able to do so much with this particular vehicle,” she says. “I have two young children. I feel more independent, more secure being able to take my children to the necessary appointments or to go to a meeting at their school."
Schwartz says the program makes a huge difference, especially in recipients' financial earning ability. "A survey where we looked at 155 of our recipients shows 75 percent of them had found a better job with an average salary increase of over $4,800 a year."
He says he hopes that donors will provide higher quality cars and more cars. He says by helping low-income families gain financial independence, taxpayers save millions of dollars on food stamps and cash assistance, and the entire community benefits.