David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Stories abound of the struggles the poor and near-poor face trying to get to their jobs on time driving old cars they can’t afford to fix or fill with gas.  But while transportation looms as a big issue in the debates about the working poor in other parts of the country, it has been largely ignored in New York City, where we assume that our mass transit system takes care of that problem.  Wrong.

In our most recent annual survey, the Unheard Third, 2014, we asked a question about transit affordability for the first time and were stunned by the findings.  Among a series of hardships we have tracked for over a decade – covering housing, hunger, health and family finances – the most frequently reported was being unable to afford basic transportation. 

One out of three poor New Yorkers said they were often unable to afford subway and bus fares.  Thirty-one percent of the working poor and a quarter of workers in households with incomes below twice the federal poverty level, frequently cannot afford to buy a MetroCard, a necessity in New York City. Now the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) wants to raise the price.  Fares are slated to go up four percent next year.

In the more car dependent rest of the country, everyone recognizes that the cost of mobility is itself a barrier to upward mobility. If you can’t get to your job, can’t get the kids to school, can’t get to the distant store to buy things a little cheaper, you can’t get ahead. Buying a car, repairing it and filling up the tank are clearly major costs. 

But daily subway and bus fares add up, especially if you travel to two or more jobs or work split shifts. Better-off New Yorkers can take advantage of buying an unlimited monthly pass for $112.  But those struggling to make ends meet can’t lay out that much, especially if the card could get lost or stolen, takes months to replace and requires a credit card purchase that racks up high interest rates for late payments.  Weekly passes might be more feasible, but don’t offer much of a discount with four unlimited 7-day passes totaling $120.

Seniors and people with disabilities can get half-price reduced fares on the MTA. There is a case to be made for that:  they are more likely to live on limited. But what about those on really limited incomes:  the poor? In the same survey, we asked New Yorkers whether or not they favor offering half-price fares to low-wage workers and nearly 7 out of 10 (69 percent) said they like the idea. Eighty-three percent of low-income New Yorkers favor it, including nearly three-quarters (73 percent) who strongly favor the proposal.  Some smaller cities are already trying it. Madison, Wisconsin offers low-income bus passes on its Metro Transit system to riders who certify that their incomes are at or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines.  They can purchase a 31-day pass for $27.50 or about half the regular price of $58.00. CARTA, the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority offers reduced low-income fares of $1.00, a 75-cent discount off the regular price per ride. And starting next March, Seattle’s King County Metro Transit will offer fare discount to riders with a household income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The fare for eligible riders is reduced from $2.25 to $3.00, depending on zones and peak times, to $1.50.

Implementing a reduced fare program – even on a pilot basis -- and scaling it up to the city’s mass transit system would require careful analysis and thought to guard against resale abuses, and project impacts on rush-hour crowding and foregone revenues. But it should be done.

Post-recession job growth in New York City has been concentrated in low-wage sectors, where workers earn so little that affording the subway fare has become a daily hardship. We need fair wages, but we also need reasonable fares. A savings of $56 a month, half the price of a 30-day unlimited pass, is the equivalent of keeping an extra day’s pay in your pocket each month for someone making the minimum wage. And that would make a real difference in the lives of the city’s 436,000 working poor.

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