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Roadblocks to Reentry: Reducing Barriers to Car Ownership

Reintegrating into society following a period of incarceration presents numerous hurdles, with transportation representing a significant yet frequently underestimated obstacle. Limited access to services, safety concerns, and navigating the reentry process are compounded by unreliable and insufficient transportation options. This additional barrier contributes to the vulnerability of returning citizens and can result in persistent unemployment and homelessness, as well as increase the likelihood of recidivism.



The ability to secure meaningful employment is already severely restricted for individuals with a criminal record, and the absence of reliable or accessible transportation is yet another impediment. Owning a car opens up job opportunities and career paths that might not be possible solely through public transportation. For instance, roles involving frequent travel to various places or entrepreneurial ventures such as repair, landscaping, and cleaning services become viable options. Additionally, in rural areas with scarce or no public transit, a car is indispensable for daily living.


84% of lower-middle income, non-car owners turned down a job opportunity due to lack of car ownership.

A 2022 Capital One Survey of 2,200 car buyers found that 84% of lower-middle income, non-car owners turned down a job opportunity due to lack of car ownership. According to the survey, respondents who had cars were more likely to have greater access to job opportunities and felt an increased sense of financial security and well-being, than non-car owners. Nearly three in four (70%) people said their vehicle gave them a sense of financial stability, and 67% said it opened up income opportunities that they would not have had without a car.



source: Capital One


Beyond expanded employment and financial opportunities, access to a car provides a sense of autonomy and independence. It helps people have more control over their schedules, get to appointments on time, and fulfill other responsibilities without relying on public transportation or other people. Car ownership also facilitates access to community organizations that provide reentry support services that include legal, health care, and government benefit assistance, as well as workforce development and other educational programs.


Several organizations provide transportation services to address some of the gaps, including initiatives through Medicaid (non-emergency medical transportation service), the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and the Howard County, Maryland Department of Corrections. But these programs have limitations-- they may not be widely publicized, often require advance scheduling, and are limited in scope, location, or duration. In rural areas, these options may be entirely unavailable.


Lack of access to a car can be a significant impediment to achieving financial well-being and economic mobility. Car ownership is often not possible for returning citizens, however, as many have difficulty qualifying for an auto loan due to a low credit score or simply having a criminal record. Research has shown that the damage to a person's credit during incarceration can be substantial and may prevent someone from opening a bank account or obtaining credit. Breaking this cycle requires more flexibility from financial institutions, such as using alternative risk measurements and ID documents. It also involves helping people repair and build credit through financial education and credit counseling.



Credit Score Tiers

source: CFPB


One option that may be available to returning citizens with low credit scores is a second chance auto loan. These loans are designed with more lenient terms to help borrowers with credit scores under 620 qualify. However, not all of these loans are the same – car dealer loans generally have much higher rates and payments are not typically reported to consumer credit reporting agencies, so this type of loan will not help someone improve their credit score. In contrast, credit unions and banks usually report loan repayments to these agencies. Credit unions are also known for their lower interest rates. While second chance loans can help some, many people still won't qualify. Further reducing barriers to affordable auto loans is needed to make car ownership more widely available to returning citizens.



For people returning home from incarceration, a car represents much more than a simple mode of transportation. It provides independence and autonomy, expanded employment opportunities, and the potential to achieve financial security. Recognizing the crucial role of reliable transportation—often overlooked as an essential part of successful reentry—and working to improve its accessibility helps support returning citizens and the many challenges they face. While initiatives by community organizations and government agencies help, these programs are not enough. Car ownership should be more broadly attainable, and financial institutions can take additional steps to help people qualify for affordable loans with flexible terms. Accessible and reliable transportation goes beyond helping returning citizens reintegrate into society; it helps ensure they have a viable way forward, which can also reduce recidivism.


 

Special thanks to Molly Alexander, our guest contributor and First Step Alliance volunteer.




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