Friday, March 21, 2014

The High Cost of Transportation: When Showing Up is Half the Battle

Whitney is an unassuming, quiet but friendly young woman who, like her peers, has earplugs in her ears more often than not.  But don’t be fooled by her appearances.  She is a very determined young woman. She is not yet 19 years old, but she is already a mother, working hard to move from transitional housing and dependence on TANF assistance to employment that will allow her to provide for herself and her child.  She earned her GED last September, but she knows to get a job that pays enough to sustain her and her child, she needs college and/or a postsecondary credential.  That’s why she’s enrolled in bridge-to-college classes at Academy of Hope.

When Whitney first enrolled at Academy of Hope, she was part of a DOES-funded GED program for youth that included a transportation stipend.  For Whitney, this meant that she could take the Metro from her transitional housing in South East DC to Edgewood Terrace near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro, where Academy of Hope’s Strive for Success classes were held.  It took about 45 minutes and cost between $2.05 and $4.10 each way. The cost, of course, depended on the time of day she traveled (peak times to get to school, non-peak to get back home) and whether she took a bus to school from the Rhode Island Metro or chose to take the 10-minute walk.  When funding for transportation stipends ended, Whitney’s commute to school became both a financial burden and a larger time commitment.  In order to save money, Whitney no longer rides the Metro. She takes a couple of buses and spends more than an hour traveling each way.  The trip costs $1.60 each way, which amounts to $3.20 a day, $12.80 for the four days of class a week and $16.00 a week if she comes in for tutoring on Friday.  The extra 15-20 minutes commuting each way adds more than a couple of hours a week.
To those of us with salaried jobs, whether middle wages or high end, $16 a week doesn’t sound like all that much money, but put it in context.  $16 a week is $48 a month. Whitney’s total income for the month is $336, which she receives through TANF.  A third of that goes to rent at the transitional house where she is living.  That leaves $216 for everything else, including food, diapers for the baby, clothing, personal hygiene, transportation, etc. for the month.  Whitney feels lucky because she’s healthy and her baby’s healthy, so she doesn’t have to decide between medicine and transportation. She is determined to get the education she needs for a better life for herself and her daughter.

There are other students who don’t have even the minimal income of TANF or supportive housing who struggle to meet their basic needs, who live even farther away from school or have more family members dependent on them. These students end up dropping out of school because they simply cannot win the battle of showing up to class. Providing assistance, such  as a transportation stipend or extending Kids Ride Free, will break down a major barrier that prevents non-traditional students, such as Whitney, from breaking the cycle of poverty. Whitney is making the commitment to show up to class and better her situation. Now it's the city's turn to ease Whitney's ride to school so she may continue changing her life not only for herself, but for child.

Patricia DeFerrari is the Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Academy of Hope. Patricia works to ensure DC is a more equitable and prosperous city by speaking up for adults with low literacy. To learn more about the work done by Academy of Hope visit their website at

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