By David M. Greenwald
A week ago, Robert Hansen penned an opinion piece, “Driving is a Right Not a Privilege,” and it deals with an overall issue of fines and fees—and one problem that advocates and, increasingly, state and local governments have learned is that imposing excessive fines and fees on citizens to help fund portions of government is really counterproductive.
Moreover, an increasing number of states have recognized just how vital a driver’s license is to the economic survival of working class people. Many states have done away with losing a driver’s license as a penalty for non-payment of fines and fees for that very reason.
When I interviewed Joanna Weiss of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, she pointed out exactly why losing a driver’s license so is so devastating to working class people.
“First of all in most places, there is simply not the public transportation system to access your basic needs without a driver’s license,” she said. “This is not how this country is built, it is a driving country and most places outside of big cities, you just simply can’t [be without a license].”
“So even if you could take a bus to work, you will lose your job,” she said.
Not only is public transportation spotty in terms of coverage, it adds a long period of time to a work day, and it can be quite costly.
One of the problems with inner cities and the concentration of poverty is that they have become job deserts. That means, to work, many people have to take jobs far away from where they live.
For instance, this AP article noted, “When Alison Norris couldn’t find work in Detroit, she searched past the city limits, ending up with a part-time restaurant job that’s 20 miles away but takes at least two hours to get to via separate city and suburban bus systems.”
I was listening to one interview with a person in a similar circumstance, and they eventually just quit their job because not only was it taking hours of commute to get to the job, but by the time they paid transportation costs, the job didn’t pay enough to be worth it.
Imagine even if you are lucky enough to work in California where low-wage jobs pay upwards of $15 per hour, and you have to end up paying $20 to commute, that’s more than 20 percent of your take home pay for an eight-hour job. That means before you pay for rent or other bills, you are taking 20 percent off your pay just for transportation to work.
This is the same dilemma we have for climate change. We need to drastically reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and move our vehicles away from single occupancy, fossil fuel based vehicles. But how do you do that in a society with the income inequality that exists in America?
In an ideal world, high gas taxes and high gas costs lead to alternatives becoming more economically viable—and yes, we need to shift away from the consumption of gas.
One of our readers had it right: “The problem with trying to solve global warming on the supply side is that the economic pain can be too great for the voters to handle.”
I would actually phrase it slightly differently—for working class people, the economic pain of high gas prices is just as devastating as the pain of losing a driver’s license.
Climate change is, in my view, the biggest threat that we face to our existence on this planet right now. I absolutely believe that this nation has not taken the issue as seriously as it should.
At the same time, it is a very tricky issue to deal with, because of how potential solutions will disparately impact people.
It sounds reasonable to argue that politicians are talking out of both sides of their mouth when they attempt to address climate change on the one hand and yet, at the same time, provide ways to subsidize the cost of gas.
The problem is ignoring that trade off has not only political, but also moral consequences.
The political consequences are simple: gas prices go too high, voters will vote the party seen as responsible for it out of office.
Or to put it into real terms, Democrats like Joe Biden and Gavin Newsom have a real problem because, while they recognize that climate change is a serious crisis, they also recognize if gas prices rise, the voters will revolt and return Donald Trump or someone like Donald Trump to office, and Trump’s four years in office likely set climate change policies back by a decade.
While the political calculation can be looked at rather cynically, I think the moral dimension is important to bear in mind. The relatively affluent, with the ability to pay more for gas, buy alternative-fueled vehicles, or even live close enough to be able to bike or use the bus efficiently, and that turns this into a class issue as much as an environmental issue.
The people pushing for alternatives are the people who do not depend on cars for their livelihoods. Working class whites have increasingly turned away from the Democratic party for a lot of reasons, but this is a big one—the Democrats are seen rightly or wrongly as the party of the elite and no longer the party of the white working class.
If we are going to solve the crisis of climate change, we are going to need to address income equality not only at home, but in the world. That’s a real challenge and one that we are not prepared to even discuss, let alone address.