In many parts of Minnesota, the path out of poverty is best traveled by car. That’s what Barbara Battiste says she learned when, as the new director of the state Office on the Economic Status of Women, she visited eight Greater Minnesota regions last year to ask: “What is the priority economic issue for women in your area?”
“In every area, people said ‘transportation.’ It floored me,” Battiste said. She had expected to hear about a lack of jobs, housing or child care. Instead she heard how difficult it is for female heads of households in transit-scarce Greater Minnesota to get and keep a job and raise a family without a car. “Transportation was the building block for everything,” she said.
Those stories make Battiste a big backer of the “Getting to Work” bill that on Wednesday cleared its first legislative committee hurdle. We like it, too. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, would make $4.5 million in state funds available via competitive grants to nonprofit agencies that offer low-interest car loans or leases and affordable car repairs to low-income people who need a car to get to work. Financial management counseling would be included in the deal.
Such programs already exist in 34 Minnesota counties. Last year, they provided vehicles to 1,000 Minnesota families. The programs are typically self-sustaining within three years. But they needed seed money, generally about $75,000, to reach that point, said Dan Jones, the “car guy” at Minnesota Valley Action Council in Mankato.
In many of the state’s other 53 counties, nonprofit organizations are willing to follow suit, provided seed money is available. That’s what the Getting to Work bill would supply, said Anna Odegaard of the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition. It also would allow existing programs to grow. For a modest $4.5 million, she said, 4,000 to 6,000 more families could have the benefits of a car.
Minnesota’s existing car-assistance programs are showing that mobility is key to steering families from welfare to self-sufficiency. That makes it a good idea for taxpayers, too.