THE EQUITY LENS | No driver’s license, no employment

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In the conversations about unemployment and poverty, “personal responsibility” and “self sufficiency” are loaded words thrown around to suggest that the unemployed and the poor should take control of their life, get a job, and pay their fair share of taxes, rather than “freeloading” off the state.  

While I disagree with the language used and assumptions that simplify the plight of the poor, I would have to agree that employment is important and essential to economic empowerment. Ask the poor what they need the most, and the answer is not “more benefits,” but “a job.”

Job Growth and Opportunities

The Department of Employment and Economic Development Department (DEED) reported that 9,500 jobs were added in December, bringing total job gains in the state to 45,900 in the past year. Of the industrial sectors, the construction industry is up 6,500 jobs from a year ago, a 7.5 percent growth rate that is more than triple the U.S. growth rate of 2.2 percent in that industry.

It’s important to note that the construction industry pays particularly well ranging from an hourly wage of $15 to $30, way above the minimum wage. We often see the poor stuck in low paying jobs with little to no chance of career advancement, but an industry like construction allows for promotion, where the hourly wage/ salary can increase, and is a felon-friendly job field. With the disproportionate amount of low income and people of color bearing the brunt of incarceration, this is a real opportunity to decrease cyclical poverty and end the prison pipeline.

As usual, a Catch 22

In our commitment to close the gap and fight for economic and racial justice, efforts have been focused on work readiness, and education and training because employment means empowerment. But can you believe that a person with work experience, a degree, and reliable transportation, can be rendered unemployable because of an invalid driver’s license?

The construction field, like many others, requires that you have reliable transportation; it is necessary to have valid driver’s license in a field where you may be working on various construction projects. With fines that can increase dramatically because of late fees and charges, we subject low income communities to penalties that we, those who can afford it, can pay off easily, while for others it is a damaging setback that can exclude them from opportunities, all because of fines unrelated to public safety.

In a Wisconsin study of the impact of driver’s license suspension on low income communities from 1992-1996, 58 percent of suspensions were among adults 18 to 55 who failed to pay parking fines, rather than fines for unsafe driving. In New Jersey, the largest number of driver’s license suspensions in 2000 was for failure to pay insurance surcharges, while parking ticket fines came in second.

So even if a person goes through training and certification to become a construction worker, and they graduate at the top of their class, if they have a suspended or revoked license, they are unemployable? Are we really allowing people to be in poverty and excluding them from opportunities because they don’t have a valid driver’s license?

A System of Barriers

Not only is this a legal barrier to employment, but it is an economic issue that disproportionately bars people of color and low income communities from gaining employment. Many fields of work require a valid driver’s license, not just construction, so this is a large scale employment issue. In the efforts to create and meet the demands of the job market, the conversations our politicians are having about “self sufficiency” should focus on the barriers to employment. We have people who are trained and ready to work, but they can’t be “responsible” because the system remains laced with barriers that pull them down.

No matter what, it seems, the People just can’t win.