Are we Driving Ourselves to the Poorhouse?

 

Maine is famous for low wages and small towns. Those small towns have been losing population for decades. When I was growing up in Blue Hill, families with five, six, or more children were common. Last year, deaths outnumbered births in all but two of Maine’s 16 counties.

My parents had five kids and two cars. My father drove one of those cars a mile and a half to work, where it sat in a parking lot all day. My mother used the other one to haul groceries and to take us to doctor’s appointments and such. Almost everybody we knew lived like this.

It’s hard to question a lifestyle when you’re living inside it. I anticipated that I would buy a car as soon as I got my license, and that I would spend my working years as a car owner. It took many years of driving and pouring money into a series of vehicles before I began to think seriously about alternatives.

Thus I sympathize with the young woman whose story appeared recently in the Bangor Daily News, my hometown newspaper. She is by all accounts a skilled elder care worker with a full-time job at a Bangor facility. Her salary – about $1,600 per month – barely covers her basic living expenses. Her story is repeated all over the state.

And yet, according to the BDN, those basic expenses include a monthly car payment of $233 and an insurance premium of $135. Before she puts gas in the car, or buys a set of tires or has an oil change or a minor repair, she has to make a monthly “nut” of $368 just to keep the thing in the driveway. And that doesn’t include registration, inspection, wiper fluid, parking tickets or any of the other little expenses that crop up from time to time. She is paying more for her car than for her monthly rent, and many Mainers are in the same boat.

Her hours may not align with the schedule, but her place of employment is right on a bus line. A monthly bus pass is $45 – a far cry from what she’s paying to keep a car.

If Maine employers want to keep skilled workers, they could raise their wages, of course – or, they could encourage them to use public transportation. The University of Maine has been doing this for years, and Husson and Eastern Maine Community College have recently followed suit. As an adjunct professor, I have months during the year when I make less than $1,600. Those times are tight, but I never have to worry about getting to work.

Municipalities can help retain workers by expanding bus schedules and encouraging employers to offer incentives like the schools do. Even small towns can do this, with a little creative thinking

Most employers willingly offer free workplace parking. What if they offered free transportation instead? This is essentially what the University of Maine does and, except for evening hours, it works splendidly. Some companies (though few, if any, in Maine) offer their employees parking offsets, where the price of a parking space is reflected in the paychecks of workers who don’t use one.

The Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor partners with public agencies to run several daily buses. This reduces traffic on Mount Desert Island and the need for more on-site parking. The bus is a boon to the employees who use it, too, because every dollar they don’t spend on a car trickles into other areas of the economy. It’s good for everybody.

We need to think differently about the way we use cars. We don’t all need our own private chariots all of the time, and we certainly can’t keep doing it forever. But it will take time to convince most Americans of this. Most of us have spent our whole lives believing exactly the opposite.

A changing mindset about our use of automobiles will produce other long-term benefits. We won’t have to keep filling our cities with parking lots. We won’t have to keep paying oil companies to drill for more and more oil in fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. And perhaps we can fight fewer wars over this finite resource.

Yes, Maine needs better wages. But businesses and local governments can also expend a little capital to promote ride-sharing, public transportation, and smart development. This in turn can encourage more Mainers to get out of the cars that are keeping them poorer than they should be.

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