A license to move out of poverty
Several years ago, a friend brought to my attention the need to address the barriers to obtaining and maintaining a driver's license. I fondly remember my driver education class in high school and attempting to parallel park for the first time.
A lot has changed since then. Many high schools across the state no longer offer driver education courses as part of the regular curriculum during the academic year. This, in part, is due to insufficient state funding for public schools and increased liability expenses to school districts.
This means that most have to turn to private driver's academies, with a price tag of approximately $400. This puts driving out of reach for low-income students.
There are many other barriers to successfully completing driver education courses: the lack of a vehicle to accumulate drive time with a licensed adult and to take the road test, not having enough time available to participate in driver's education after school or in the summer or an inability to find transportation to and from classes if they are able to attend. Some families do not want their teenagers to obtain a driver's license because auto insurance premiums automatically increase when there is another driver in the household, even if the teenage driver is not driving the insured vehicle.
In Duluth, having a driver's license is crucial to finding and maintaining employment. A driver's license is often a requirement to apply for a job, even if the job does not involve driving. The city of Duluth is making significant progress on reviewing job classifications for positions with the city to determine whether a driver's license is a necessity. I hope other employers will do the same.
A driver's license enables individuals to seek employment that pays a living wage. Not all good-paying jobs are on a bus route. Many jobs in construction, for instance, require a vehicle to get to the job site.
Having a driver's license is important in moving out of poverty. Unfortunately this issue is not getting sufficient attention at the state level. In the last legislative session, there was an emphasis on addressing racial economic disparities. A number of bills were introduced to increase funding for job training programs, an important component.
However, without a driver's license, many young adults are unable to participate in these important programs. We also have incredible union-sponsored apprenticeship and training programs, but these also require a driver's license and vehicle to get to the training facilities.
In the 2016 legislative session, I introduced a bill (HF 3995) to appropriate funds to help subsidize the cost of driver education courses (through schools or private academies) for low-income students and to develop a working group to study the availability of driver education courses in Minnesota. Unfortunately, the bill never received a hearing in the GOP-controlled House.
Minnesota is ranked at the bottom (No. 48) in the percentage of licensed drivers with only 59 percent of residents holding a license. Approximately 90 percent of the clients served by CHUM do not have a driver's license. Based on data from Duluth neighborhoods compiled by Minnesota Compass (MNCompass.org), 31.4 percent of households in the Central Hillside do not have a vehicle compared to 13.3 percent for the entire city of Duluth. The number of Central Hillside households that rely on public transportation is two times the number for the entire city of Duluth. This neighborhood has a median household income of only $27,618. It has the highest proportion of non-white households of all Duluth neighborhoods.
The inability to obtain a driver's license reduces the likelihood of continuing post-secondary education and finding living-wage employment.
Duluthians are organizing to address the difficulties for many to obtain and maintain a driver's license. A focus group of concerned individuals (a Transportation Table) is in the process of being formed with the assistance of Jenny Van Sickle at Community Action Duluth and Mark Engebretson at CHUM. I will need the support of our community to advocate for positive change on this in St. Paul. Getting educated about this topic is the first step. Look for opportunities to get involved or contact me directly.
Rep. Jennifer Schultz DFL-Duluth represents District 7A in the Minnesota House. She can be reached via phone at (651) 296-2228 or by e-mail at Rep.Jennifer.Schultz@House.MN.