Michael Lind, a co-founder of left-leaning New America, is urging the federal government to create universal mobility accounts that would give everyone an income tax credit, or, if they owe no taxes, a direct subsidy to cover the costs of driving. He argues that social mobility depends on personal mobility, and personal mobility depends on access to a car, so therefore everyone should have one.
This is an interesting departure from the usual progressive argument that cars are evil and we should help the poor by spending more on transit. Lind responds to this view saying that transit and transit-oriented developments “can help only at the margins.” He applauds programs that help low-income people acquire inexpensive, used automobiles, but–again–thinks they are not enough.
Lind is virtually arguing that automobile ownership is a human right that should be denied to no one because of poverty. While I agree that auto ownership can do a lot more to help people out of poverty than more transit subsidies, claiming that cars are a human right goes a little to far.
Lind may not realize that there just aren’t that many poor people who don’t have cars anymore. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, 91.1 percent of American households have at least one vehicle and 95.5 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one vehicle. A lot of the households with no vehicles could afford to own one but choose not to, so the number of poor people without vehicles is very small. Of course, some two-worker families may have only one vehicle, but older used cars are affordable enough that the cost hardly seems a barrier to anyone with a job.
One implication is that adding a mobility credit to an already complicated tax system means that the vast majority of the credit will go to high-income people and people who already have cars. If only 2 to 3 percent (or even more) of people are both in poverty and lack access to cars, then why should everyone else also get a tax credit? Lind argues against means testing, saying that middle- and upper-income voters resent such programs, but non-means-tested programs always end up favoring the rich, if only because many poor people won’t file tax returns and so won’t know to ask for their credit or subsidy.
Lind makes no attempt to estimate how much the program will cost, but to make a different to low-income people I suspect it would have provide a credit of at least $500 per person per year. With 150 million workers (there were 146 million in 2015, but this program is supposed to increase employment), that’s $75 billion a year, or about 5 percent of personal income tax revenues.
Which raises the question of how to pay for the program. Giving people either tax breaks or direct subsidies either means borrowing more money or raising some other taxes. Whether borrowed or taxed, someone is eventually going to have to pay for it, and that means middle- to high-income people. This pretty much destroys the argument that they will support this policy so long as they get some of the benefits.
More important questions are whether this program would even make a real difference and if there are other programs that could do better for less cost. Lind offers no evidence of the former, but I can think of a lot of ways to help low-income workers that would both cost less and not imply that mobility is some kind of a human right.
Most important would be to remove the barriers to mobility that have been erected by other left-leaning groups, namely the smart-growth crowd and other urban planners. Too much city planning for the past several decades has been based on increasing traffic congestion to try to force people out of their cars. Yet congestion is mostly likely to harm low-income people, because their jobs are less likely to allow flex time, working at home, or other escapes from traffic available to knowledge workers. Low-income people also have less choice about home locations, especially in regions that have made housing expensive, meaning their commutes can be longer than those of higher-income workers.
Relieving traffic congestion in every major urban area in the country would cost a lot less than $75 billion a year. This doesn’t necessarily mean building new roads. Instead, start by removing the so-called traffic calming devices that actually take more lives by delaying emergency service vehicles than they save by reducing auto-pedestrian accidents. Then add dynamic traffic signal controls that have been proven to cost-effectively save people’s time, energy, and clean air. Converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes greatly reduces congestion and actually produces revenue. At relatively little cost, steps like these would remove many of the barriers to automobility for low-income families.
I’m not going to do more than mention the effects of increased auto ownership on urban sprawl, energy consumption, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions other than to say that low-income people tend to drive cars that are least safe, least energy efficient, and most polluting. I think these problems are exaggerated by the left, but it is ironic that Lind wants to expand auto ownership when most other progressives want to restrict automobile use.
Ultimately, however, I have to reject any implication that mobility is some kind of a human right. Human rights include the rights not to be bothered by government for things that you want to do or believe that don’t harm other people–things like free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. Human rights do not include the right to expect other people to pay for things that you would like but can’t or don’t want to work for.
Rather than invent new human rights, people who are concerned about poverty should first ask what kind of barriers government creates that prevent social mobility. Those barriers should all be removed before any thought is given to taxing some people in order to give money or resources to others.