When things go wrong in a person’s life, especially for low-income people, consequences have a way of snowballing.
Amber Lindsay is a case in point. She got a traffic ticket. She didn’t pay it because she couldn’t afford to, she said. Then she got another. Then another. And soon, her license was suspended and she owed far more than she could hope to pay.
She worked at the time in the restaurant business, keeping hours and at locations that were not well served by public transit. Faced with the reality of needing to get to work on time, she turned to her smartphone, and started calling for ride shares via Uber and Lyft. The expense quickly grew unsustainable.
Lindsay’s case illustrates one complication faced by many workers in low- or middle-skilled positions. Transportation can be a daily, ongoing or even crisis-level headache.
Particularly in Michigan, and even more so in southeast Michigan, the obstacles to getting to and from work in a timely fashion are significant. Regional sprawl means jobs may be miles from where workers live or can afford to live. Public transportation is unreliable and uncoordinated. And auto insurance rates can be astronomically high, especially in the Metro Detroit area.
A new report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan lays out some of these complications in “Overcoming Barriers for the Underemployed.”
The report addresses this mismatch: Even while employers report difficulty finding workers to fill open positions, there remain more than 400,000 unemployed and underemployed individuals amongst the state’s labor force. But connecting them is no simple matter.
Other key findings are:
- Although much of Michigan’s workforce development efforts have been focused on training people for high-skilled jobs, the vast majority of job openings has been and will continue to be concentrated in low- and middle-skilled jobs.
- The working poor (discouraged workers, those marginally attached to the workforce, or those working part-time) and those who have dropped out of the workforce are likely candidates to fill many of the job openings, but confront several barriers.
- State workforce development programs generally do not assist these populations. Instead, they focus on the unemployed and those in poverty, as dictated by restrictions on federal funding, leaving those most prepared to contribute to the economy to fend for themselves.
In Lindsay’s case, there was simply no money in the budget to pay her traffic fines. As they piled up, they became a burden she could not climb out from under. She fell behind in her rent. Her family was evicted. She and her children entered a shelter for a month.
Transportation costs pile up
She describes her brief period of homelessness as “a spiritual breakthrough” that clarified her thinking, but admits it was a wrenching experience getting there. She used the time to find another place to live and concentrate on developing a plan to improve her situation.
A nonprofit charity focused on helping women like Lindsay took on the portion of her debt that was keeping her license suspended, paying the fines and a reinstatement fee at the Secretary of State. The total sum was $1,280, which for a low-wage worker with three children, is nearly insurmountable. She still owes for lesser fines, and is on a payment plan.
The Research Council report notes that the cost of owning and insuring a vehicle in Michigan is almost double the Midwest average (it remains to be seen how the 2019 reforms will improve the costs). This can price people out of the market for a vehicle, force them to drive uninsured, and make them dependent on other types of transportation that either are not widely available or unreliable. Lindsay found herself developing relationships with Lyft drivers who would transport her on a good-faith promise to pay when she could, promises she said he honored.
Lindsay said she’s on the right path now. She’s pursuing an associate degree in culinary arts and entrepreneurship, with a dream of one day buying her own food truck or doing small-scale catering and home delivery on the model of popular order-from-anywhere services.
Now that her license has been restored, she’s looking forward to getting a better job. The number of positions that require an applicant to have reliable transportation – and prove it – is higher than many would think, she said.
She keeps a log of the challenges she must meet on her way to her goals, and getting her license back was at the top of the list.
“I’m getting there,” she said. “But it’s going to take a while.”