Poverty and Forced Car Ownership

File under #WhatsWrongWithThisPicture:
Free food distributions by churches, nonprofits etc. are becoming more common, to help remedy the food-insecurity that many people are experiencing as rent and other costs of living keep getting higher. What I consistently notice on the announcements is the instructions “Please remain in your vehicle” (as in car — I gather this is for Covid reasons).

So, what’s wrong with this picture? If you’re about to say “Well if someone can afford a car (especially a big or fancy car), they have no business taking food handouts” — No, that’s not what I’m getting at.

What I’m getting at is: Large numbers of people deal with food insecurity on an ongoing basis. And yet, most people, because of the design of the typical USA-merican life, don’t have the option to cut expenses by doing without a car. In most places it is difficult to impossible to do without a car, and that is bad design. It’s a combination of many things, including the fact that things are big and spread-out (giant homes distant from giant shops & schools & workplaces); how unfriendly most roads are to anyone not in a motor vehicle; how hostile our overall culture is to public transportation (having buses and trains and things be supported by publuc tax dollars is communist, right?).

I have heard it said that car ownership costs the typical household an average of something like $8,000 a year when you factor in insurance, repairs, gas and all.

Now, I’m not saying every household will become automatically food-secure and housing-secure if they find a way to do without the financial burden of owning a car. I’ve spent most of my adult life car-free, and yet at times in the past I’ve experienced extended periods of both food-insecurity and housing-insecurity. That said, being free of that huge 4-wheeled expense was one factor that allowed me to stay afloat and continue at my desired freelance occupations and community work. And I have been able to manage without government assistance. (Not bragging here, and also definitely not disparaging anyone who has needed government assistance. I may need it at some point — like if I need to get health insurance. Am just saying that cutting major expenses like car ownership helped me avoid needing to seek out government assistance for food, housing, etc.)

Now. Even in cases where a person/household could feasibly do without a car, there is another obstacle to living car-free. This obstacle is cultural rather than logistical. I’m talking about the fact that our culture views car ownership as a marker of success, prestige, and respectability. I would even go so far as to say our mainstream culture views car ownership as ESSENTIAL to being a “real adult” / “respectable citizen.”

If car ownership is part of how our culture defines prestige and success and respectability, then of course people are going to aspire to own cars. I have lost track of how many times I’ve heard people be all happy and excited because they just got a car. Never mind that they are having trouble keeping a roof over their head or getting enough to eat (none of which is their fault, by the way — this is structural, societal stuff).

Mainstream cultural norms are emotionally compelling and very stubbornly rooted, even among many of us who like to consider ourselves “free thinkers.” All is not lost, though: Many of the people adopting car-free lifestyles are on the wealthy and privileged side of the socioeconomic spectrum. And for better or for worse, what rich people define as “cool” and desirable tends to catch on. Of course, if we want it to catch on, there need to be plenty of walkable/cycleable/wheelchair-able neighborhoods and plenty of commute-free work options for people.

When I see those community food distribution announcements instructing people to stay in their cars, I always cringe. I have often contacted the organizers to ask if they offer alternative arrangements for people arriving on foot or other human-powered transport. And they generally say yes; that the person can just come up and get food. But it’s disturbing to me that as far as I know, I am the only person who has questioned this or brought it up. I see this as a marker of just how deeply the cultural norm of private automobile ownership has its hooks in us.