If this blog had a board of directors we would appoint Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver to upon it sit. He looked right into the dark heart of suburban poverty and social difficulty in a recent episode of his popular show to razor sharp effect. How so? He took the American sub prime auto loan industry out for a run, that’s how.
Oliver starts with the difficulty faced by many of his adopted country’s working poor: that trap between horrendously long commutes through the sprawl via public transit or buying some nasty set of wheels from a self-financing used car dealer. There’s some impressive research and real world tales of woe brought out and then capped off with a hilarious skit spoofing the whole sad machinery of extortionate high interest loans, overpriced shitboxes and repossessions. It has gotten so out of hand of late that some observers are seeing a repeat of the mortgage crisis of 2008 taking shape in US auto financing. We’ll see soon enough.
image: staci myers via Flickr/CC
A semi-disposable Internet moment caught suburban-poverty.com’s attention yesterday. It illustrates succinctly one of the themes we’ve come back to often.
Seems a young woman in Western New York ran afoul of the sheriff for having to resort to making her own license plate. Her cardboard plate looks like something a kid would do in art class. Even has the little New York state map in the middle of a crooked row of letters and numbers. It’s kinda cute.
Mainstream media networks picked up the story. This “going viral” prompted Erie County resident, Amanda Schwieckert, to come forward and tell The Buffalo News her side of the story. Looks like she struggles a bit to get by. Insurance, registration fees and a parking ticket had whacked Amanda financially. Yet, she could not keep her hotel industry job without her car. The state took her plates. Amanda made her own.
This kind of moment is straight from the pen of Barbara Ehrenreich or Linda Tirado, two popular writers chronicling how tough it is for working people to get by in America these days. Amanda exemplifies the dual nature of working class motoring. The expenses for a set of wheels often take things from bad to worse, can be unpredictable and enormously consequential. Amanda is facing some steep charges including felony counterfeiting. Ouch.
We can’t help but think that a little Jane Jacobs would go a long way in the life of Amanda and the millions of workers like her. Community design, or the general lack thereof, reinforces poverty. So much of North America is so totally car dependent its inhabitants cannot function in their native landscape without cars. Many cannot even intellectually conceive of life organized at any other level than that of total mediation by automobile.
Hopefully Amanda’s resourcefulness is a sign she’ll be okay.
Canada’s largest circulation newspaper ( or is it second largest, we don’t remember exactly and in a dying industry does it matter who is first ) shows us how to make a really fantastic contribution to the discussion of one of the most pressing public issues.
If you go down this road here are some pointers:
(103) A man’s home is his castle …and frequently also his shitbox!
Hey Globe and Mail, look who was on this, like, six hundred postings ago…
(262) Living in a van in Van
image: Alvin Trusty via Flickr/CC
Car-as-home is not just a North American thing.
Geelong’s homeless forced to live in car amid housing crisis
image: jeremyg3030 via Wikimedia Commons/CC
Old cars, everybody’s got one …or wishes they did. Even a beater can take the edge off long trips to work or shop in the sprawl. But mandatory car ownership places stress on the working poor. Gasoline, insurance, parking, fines, unpredictable repairs and outright replacement divert wages readily used elsewhere.
This interesting item from the US mentions Ways to Work, an alternative, community-based source for auto loans for working people. In time, this type of non-profit may appear in Canada. If we gotta work in the sprawl then we gotta drive in the sprawl, right? Until awesome transit and walkable communities are everywhere this model might help people adapt and prosper in a realistic way while avoiding predatory lenders. On the other hand, it might just be delaying an inevitable reckoning with what North Americans have built all over their human landscape: an unsustainable, fossil fuel intense arrangement of living that needs to be rescaled to new, more restrictive realities?
Not mentioned in the piece are a couple of moderate environmental benefits accompanied by improving the rides of the working poor in suburbia. Beaters be drip fluids and produce more air pollution. Get some of those shitboxes off the road and you cut their impact on the air and our waterways. Reasonable loans for cars might cut accidents, too, by reducing the population of older, poorly maintained, under-inspected cars on which repair work is often deferred. Those same cars presumably are less gas efficient models because of their older technology and worn condition.
image: used car dealership in Tennessee by Thomas R Machnitzki via Wikimedia Commons
From suburban-poverty.com’s rooftop garden we often see the super commuters of the Greater Toronto Area: weaving in and out of lanes, cruising well above the speed limits in their sharp cars by the thousands. Gotta make time, gotta make money! They connect workplace and homeplace via more time and gas on our ever crowded multi-lane arteries. These motorists are a component of sprawl and part of a continental trend. Much has been written and said about what this means personally and socially. So it was with great interest we came across word of a human resources finding at Xerox. Those fast movers covering greater and greater distances between points in the sprawl are in a lifestyle that doesn’t seem to fully lend itself to reliability and a sense of engagement in the workplace. Two things that corporate employers like Xerox are said to cherish. It seems the extra hassle, time and expense involved in super commuting can reduce what a given employee has to offer when she arrives in her boardroom or cubicle morning after morning.
Palo Alto, California will require all new homes constructed there to be pre-wired for electric vehicle chargers from now on. The affluent, brainy suburb-city is home to Tesla Motors and has come to see the electric vehicle as something to be supported in municipal codes. A buyer can be expected to encounter about two hundred dollars in costs to meet the requirement: not much against the price tag of a new home in Palo Alto or the Model S to go with it. To rejig the suburbs into something sustainable requires bold and highly visible changes to technology and economics and in our ways of thinking which are in turn expressed by such unremarkable things as a civil servant typing a couple of lines into your town’s building code.
Palo Alto looks to require electric vehicle circuitry in new homes
San Jose Mercury News
image: US DOT via Wikimedia Commons