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The impossible paradox of car ownership

For many working-class Americans, cars are a burden and a necessity.

A woman sitting in the driver’s seat of a silver sedan parked beside a chainlink fence.
Shala Waines uses her 2015 Hyundai Elantra to run her small business, to supplement her income making UberEats and DoorDash deliveries, and to get herself and her daughter to school, the store, and appointments. “It’s everything,” she says.
Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.

It was the third Saturday of the month, which meant that Shala Waines was up early. In a few hours, she had to set up for the Soul Swapmeet, a monthly open-air market she founded in 2018 for Black entrepreneurs. To get to the swap meet that morning, Shala had to transport herself, her 17-year-old daughter, Damiyah, and Damiyah’s two friends, plus a large, A-frame plastic sign advertising the event, and a tent for her DJs. Shala drives a silver 2015 Hyundai Elantra, and fitting the kids and supplies in a compact four-door requires some creativity. She made it work by asking the teens to hold the tent in their laps.

To look at Shala’s car is to get a sense of the woman who drives it: a small business owner, a single mom, and the type of person who volunteers to bring all of the food for a friend’s lakeside birthday bash. There are the empty cups her teenager and friends left in the back seat right after she cleaned it; boxes and bags rolling around in the trunk. There’s a “minding my Black-owned business” sticker, and some scrapes and dents on the driver’s side doors and bumper that Shala hates but can’t afford to fix right now.

The Elantra has meant a lot to her. It’s how she’s built her business, driving around San Diego to meet with potential vendors and city officials, scouting locations for the swap meet, loading it up with supplies. It’s how she makes UberEats and DoorDash deliveries to supplement her income, making food deliveries and supermarket runs for other people. It’s how she transports her daughter to school, gets her groceries, and makes it to doctor’s appointments. It’s her constant companion as she hustles, creates opportunities for herself and her clients, and cares for her daughter. In other words, her car is her ticket to participating in American life. “It’s everything,” Shala says.

Shala Waines opens the trunk of her car. Behind her on a grassy expanse are tents with merchandise.
Shala is pictured with her car at the Soul Swapmeet in San Diego in May 2023. She founded the event five years ago.

It feels almost too obvious to say that for most people living in the United States, owning a car or having access to one is a necessity. Even after the pandemic tripled the number of Americans who primarily work from home, the vast majority of American workers — 68 percent — still drive to their jobs. Eighty-eight percent of households use cars to shop for food, according to one survey, and having a car or a ride can factor significantly into whether someone is able to get health care.

For people who don’t need a car to get around, the convenience of owning one is so overwhelming that few who can afford to have a vehicle — outside of transit-rich cities like New York and Washington, DC — choose to go without. As of 2021, 91.7 percent of American households had at least one car, according to Census data, and only 8.3 percent had none. In ways large and small, the ability to drive dictates how adults in the US earn a living, see friends, care for family, and visit the world outside their neighborhoods.

Anyone who has ever struggled to afford a car, or lived without one, knows how complicated life can get without access to a vehicle. Car ownership has always been expensive, but recent trends suggest that it is getting worse. New car prices have risen so much that purchasing one is quickly becoming out of reach for many buyers: A new car cost about $48,000 in May 2023, roughly 25 percent more than one cost in May 2020. Because of a microchip shortage and auto manufacturers using their limited supply on luxury vehicles that cost more money, consumers are increasingly turning to the used car market, driving up those prices, too. Over almost the same time period, the price of an average used car rose about 50 percent. Plus, there’s the cost of gas, emergency repair, regular maintenance, and insurance, which also has been rising.

Shala Waines walks along a row of tents selling merchandise on a grassy field.
Shala walks the grounds of the Soul Swapmeet in May.
A photo showing a dent on the rear quarter panel of a silver Hyundai Elantra.
The 2015 silver Hyundai Elantra that Shala has owned since 2018 has some scratches and dents.

The burdens of vehicle dependency fall disproportionately on marginalized people, especially those who are low-income and those who are Black. Car insurance costs more for people living in majority-minority zip codes. Minorities are more likely to be denied car loans than white people with the same credit scores and incomes, and pay higher interest rates when they’re approved. People with low credit scores are vulnerable to predatory lenders who can trap them further in debt. Those living in low-income communities are more likely to live near dangerous roads, putting them at increased risk of death. And Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over by the police, an experience with a range of possible negative outcomes, including ticketing, arrest, and violence.

There is also the major toll cars take on the environment. Researchers calculated gas consumption from vehicles from 1949 to present and found that if American-owned vehicles were their own country, they’d be the sixth largest emitter of carbon dioxide on Earth. For all of these reasons, environmentalists and urban planning experts and advocates focus on reducing auto dependency, highlighting the importance of providing more equitable and environmentally sustainable alternatives, like public transit.

At the same time, a small but growing body of research shows that while reducing car use overall ought to remain a priority for policymakers, there’s a segment of the population that would benefit greatly by increasing access to and ownership of cars: low-income people, especially working-class mothers. They argue that increasing vehicle availability is an important step toward reducing economic inequality.

Arizona State University Professor David King and two colleagues, Michael Manville at UCLA and Michael Smart at Rutgers, decided to look at the falling socioeconomic status of carless people in the United States. In a paper published in 2019, they found that the poverty rate among carless families rose between 1960 and 2014, at the same time the number of poor people with a car increased 20 percent. The way a car unlocks access to almost everything ensures that most people will, despite the costs, do whatever they can to obtain one.

What surprised King was how pronounced the income gap between car owners and the carless was in much of the country. The disparity between an auto-owning household and a carless household was about as large as it is between a homeowner and renter. “We were really surprised that the relationship is as stark as it is,” King said.

Another study in 2014 of low-income families who received housing vouchers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that recipients who had cars fared better than those who did not. “Housing voucher recipients with cars tended to live and remain in higher-opportunity neighborhoods — places with lower poverty rates, higher social status, stronger housing markets, and lower health risks,” wrote Rolf Pendall, one of the study’s authors and a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Among one group of voucher recipients, “those with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to remain employed,” he wrote. “The importance of automobiles arises not due to the inherent superiority of driving, but because public transit systems in most metropolitan areas are slow, inconvenient, and lack sufficient metropolitan-wide coverage to rival the automobile.”

In 2018, Cornell University professor Nicholas Klein interviewed 30 people who received cars through a program called Vehicles For Change, which provides automobiles to people who need them in Maryland and northern Virginia. Klein was looking for specific examples hidden in the data indicating that car access improves job opportunities and can have other benefits for families.

Shala Waines watches the display of a gas pumping station, leaning against her Elantra.
Shala fills up her tank at a San Diego-area gas station. Owning a car costs far more than its purchase price — insurance, interest rates, maintenance, and gas all make the expense more burdensome, particularly for those with lower incomes.

“The part I didn’t expect, that came up organically in interviews, was that low-income people were already buying cars and struggling to own and maintain cars. I think many people, including myself, had naively assumed that subsidizing a car for someone meant that they’d go from taking the bus or biking or walking to all of a sudden driving,” he says. “It’s not that most lower-income people are not able to own a car. It’s that they’re not able to hold onto those cars, and the used car market is incredibly fraught.”

Klein also realized that conversations about cars, and the struggles of getting, keeping, and maintaining them, were often much deeper and more emotionally weighted than they initially seemed. As he spoke with recipients, Klein started to understand why. “Losing a car is often caught up with another crisis or challenge,” he says. “It can be caught up in housing insecurity, or losing a job. Sometimes, it’s people talking about domestic abuse or addiction or incarceration.”

The conversations were, on the surface, about getting a car. In reality, they were about so much more than that. They were stories about what it means to survive in the United States.

Shala knows how hard it can be to hold on to a car. Growing up in Southern California, she had memories of family road trips to Disneyland, Las Vegas, and the beach. “I had an amazing upbringing until I turned 17,” she says. “From there, everything went downhill.”

In 2001, Shala’s mom broke her ankle. Soon after, she developed a blood clot and died suddenly. Shala was just on the cusp of adulthood; her mom was 35. “It hit us really hard,” Shala says. A few months later, Shala and her siblings moved across the country with their stepdad, to Virginia to be closer to his relatives. Shala struggled with her grief. By 17, she was pregnant with her first child.

She stayed in Roanoke after high school, raising her son and working, and by 31, she was a mother of two employed by a large insurance agency. She hated the way her work dictated the time she was able to spend with her children, and felt that there weren’t good opportunities for her if she stayed in Virginia. She dreamed of returning to California and someday starting her own business. So she made contact with her biological dad, who was still living in California. He offered to help her find a job and a place to live if she came home.

Shala took the Chevrolet Impala she’d been paying off and drove it from Roanoke to San Diego over the course of a weekend. When she got there, she realized that her dad wasn’t actually in a position to help. First, he put her up in the house of a relative who wasn’t able to accommodate her and her daughter. Then, he paid for a night in a motel room where the front door didn’t lock and everything was so unclean that Shala didn’t want to lie down on the bed. Her daughter Damiyah, then 7 years old, was with her at the time (her son stayed with his father in Virginia). The two of them felt so afraid of staying the night that they fled the room and slept in their car.

After several weeks, Shala got a job and secured an apartment. They didn’t have any furniture, so each night Shala inflated a twin-sized mattress for her and Damiyah to sleep on. “In the morning it was flat,” she says. She made omelets for every breakfast, trying to keep grocery costs low and save as much as she could.

While she was struggling to get back on her feet, she fell behind on the payments for the Impala. Soon, she started worrying that it would be repossessed. She stayed up late at night, listening to the sounds of traffic, fearing a tow truck would come and take the car. “One night, it really was the truck,” she says, starting to cry at the memory. “They took my car, and I was all alone. I didn’t have anybody. I was like, what am I going to do?”

“Getting a car is a great step toward independence, but it’s not the final step. We need to do better as a society to provide a better standard of living,” says Marla Stuart, director of the Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services Department. The county’s KEYS Auto Loan program provides affordable, low-interest car loans to qualified participants in CalWORKs, a California public assistance program.

KEYS and other loan programs can help people who might otherwise be subject to predatory lenders pushing deals they know recipients can’t afford to pay. But they also help address the inequity applicants face on the market. Minority applicants, according to research by Southern Methodist University professor Erik Mayer and colleagues, are 1.5 percentage points less likely to get a loan compared to their white peers, even after factoring in income and credit scores. Those who receive loans are charged interest rates that are 0.7 percent APR higher than similar white buyers. “Minorities are treated as if their credit score is roughly 30 points lower than it actually is. But then when we look at default rates on auto loans, we do not find any evidence that this is justified in economic terms,” Mayer tells Vox.

Across the United States, there are more than 120 nonprofit organizations that help provide cars to people who need them, according to Working Cars for Working Families, a program run by the National Consumer Law Center. Some operate as offshoots of county or state social services departments, others as charities. Freddy Pacheco, who helps run the loan program DriveForward for the Peninsula Family Service, in San Mateo, California, sees a range of people with moderate and low incomes, but, he says, “I would say around 80 percent of them are single mothers and minorities. A lot of them are people that came from domestic violence relationships or they’re not getting support with their kids.”

Davine Snead is the vice president of development at Vehicles For Change, the organization that connected Klein to car recipients for his research. But 15 years ago, she was a mother of three young kids, going through a divorce. Her sister told her about Vehicles For Change, and Snead made a connection with the organization through a referral agency. Vehicles for Change got her a minivan. In turn, Snead was able to take a job that required her to commute a little farther each day, but which put her on the path to financial sustainability. It also allowed her to give her kids the experiences she’d always wanted them to have — regular trips to museums and the public library, and family days at the beach. “I get choked up, because that minivan was literally the keys to my independence and my freedom that I needed to restart my life,” Snead says. “It was just a real game changer.”

A closeup of Shala Waines’s keys, with include a Soul Swapmeet lanyard and a cat keychain.
Shala shows off her keys.

Because car access programs are limited, and the number of people who need cars and struggle to afford them is immense, people who struggle to afford a car often end up with bad loans or unreliable vehicles. Others make arrangements with family and friends, doing whatever they can to get by.

While Shala was trying to figure out how she was going to get to work without the Impala, her neighbor’s mom made an offer: The woman would pay to get Shala’s car out of the lot, but she’d keep it for herself. In return, the woman would let Shala rent the Toyota Prius she owned, while Shala saved money to buy another car. Shala accepted the offer because she needed to get to work to keep her job, and taking the bus would add hours to her commute. But she later came to regret the terms of the deal. “I was paying her $200 a week for that car,” she says — far more than the average used car loan, which is currently around $526 a month. At the time, she felt like she had no other choice. “When your back is against the wall, you have to say yes.”

Eventually, she saved up enough money to get a used Volkswagen Jetta, but the car started malfunctioning shortly after she bought it, and soon it was in the shop more than on the street. She found a lawyer and successfully sued the dealership that sold it to her. In 2016, she was hired to be the office manager at a fledgling insurance company for $25 an hour and bought a 2015 Kia Optima. The new business struggled, and she soon was laid off. She started falling behind on payments for the Kia, too. She needed to figure something out before the car was repossessed.

Both Shala’s and Snead’s experiences echo what Evelyn Blumenberg, a professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, found when reviewing data about what car access means for women — especially working-class mothers. In a 2016 piece in The Town Planning Review, Blumenberg demonstrated the increasing importance of cars for women with limited means, due to the suburbanization of poverty, women’s participation in the workforce, and their unique household responsibilities. After reviewing the wide range of positive outcomes associated with cars, Blumenberg wrote: “If automobiles are essential to women’s livelihoods, policies ought to balance the need for automobiles with broader efforts to reduce their negative environmental impacts.”

King also feels strongly about increasing car availability for low-income people. Cars are harmful to the environment, expensive, and loaded with negative externalities. But the individual benefits to low-income people are too great to ignore. “Just because too much driving is bad,” he says, “doesn’t mean we should punish people who’d be better off by driving more.”

In 2018, Shala discovered Hand Up Cars. A program offered by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, Hand Up Cars provides financing for working parents with low-to-moderate incomes and challenged credit histories, and it comes with required financial workshops and coaching. Shala applied to be a part of the program, attended financial literacy classes, and qualified for a loan. She picked out the Elantra. It wasn’t her dream car, but it had almost everything she was looking for.

Shala Waines leans on the open driver’s side door of her Elantra, smiling.
Shala bought her car after struggling to maintain payments on previous vehicles. Hand Up Cars, a program run by San Diego’s Jewish Family Service, helped her purchase the Elantra, and also offered financial coaching. She now feels more stable than she has in years.

Her Kia was eventually repossessed, but this time, she wasn’t stuck without a vehicle. The relief, she says, was immeasurable. “Helpful is not even the word — it’s been a lifesaver,” she says. The program’s coordinator, Nina Vaysburd, kept in touch with her, checking in to make sure she was keeping up with her payments and dropping off gift cards for Shala and her daughter at Christmas. In Vaysburd, Shala felt like she’d found someone who was on her side.

When her transmission died in 2020, Hand Up Cars helped pay for it to be replaced. Five years after getting her car, Shala is almost done paying off the loan. She still thinks of herself as working her way toward the middle class, but she’s in a much more stable situation, and she knows the car played a major part. She feels much closer to making it than she did 10 years ago, when she and her daughter sometimes had to sleep in the Impala.

The Elantra is still her ticket to everything: On the Thursday after the meet, she drove with her daughter Damiyah to the bank to cash a check, then turned on the UberEats app and made a few deliveries.

Shala and her 17-year-old daughter, Damiyah, left, shop for groceries for an UberEats delivery run.
Shala in the driver’s seat looks at her phone, which shows a map for grocery delivery. Her daughter, Damiyah, is in the passenger seat.
Having the Elantra has allowed Shala to take on extra work delivering for UberEats and Doordash.

Damiyah is now the same age Shala was when she lost her mom. It’s something Shala thinks about a lot. Because of what happened, Shala worries about what would happen to Damiyah if Shala died at a young age. It’s important to her to do everything she can to prepare her daughter for being an adult. “I don’t want my baby to be without what she needs when I’m gone,” she says.

When she pays off the Elantra, Shala hopes to get another car so she can give this one to Damiyah. Shala’s mom never got a chance to give her driving lessons; for her own daughter, it’s different. Shala and Damiyah have just switched seats. Shala is teaching her daughter how to drive.

Damiyah is in the driver’s seat, smiling at her mother, who is in the passenger’s seat making a driving motion with her hands.
Shala is also using the Elantra for one special task: teaching Damiyah to drive.
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