Atlantic Cities

How Driver's License Suspensions Make Poverty Worse

How Driver's License Suspensions Make Poverty Worse
SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

A Republican lawmaker in Florida is setting his sights on reversing a policy that devastates the poor but gets little attention: suspending a person's driver's license. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford gave a brief-but-brilliant master class on what criminal justice reformers call "collateral consequences."

"They forgot to show up in court," Weatherford told the paper of the 167,000 Floridians who had their licenses suspended in 2013 for reasons unrelated to driving. "They didn't pay their child support. There's this snowball effect. They lose their driver's license. Now they can't get to work. They get pulled over on a suspended driver's license. Now they go to jail. Now they owe $4,000. It creates poverty. It holds people down."

As Weatherford notes, you don't have to be jailed or even convicted to get pulled into poverty's revolving door. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators in 2012 found 59 offenses unrelated to driving that could lead to an American having her license suspended. Bouncing a check will cost you your license in 11 states; failing to pay child support will cost you your license in 43 states. Iowa will suspend your license for being drunk in public, Vermont will suspend it for burning trash, Nevada will take it for failing to pay alimony, and Florida will take it for failing to submit to a genetic (read: paternity) test. Montana will suspend your driver's license (and any other state license you have) if you default on your student loans. The irony of course is that if a person can't or won't meet their financial obligations, losing their driver's license—and the privileges that come with it—will only make meeting those obligations (and others) harder. 

In New York, San Francisco, or D.C., a person with a suspended license could possibly still get to work using public transportation. But you can't say the same for residents of even Florida's biggest cities. As of 2011, Orlando's bus system serviced only 16 percent of the metro's major employment hubs, and the average public transit commute was 90 minutes. As of 2012, only 4 percent of Miami commuters reportedly used the city's bus and rail system to get to their jobs. 

Most states do offer something called a restricted-use license, which allows someone with a suspended license to get permission to drive to and from a job. In Florida, it's called a hardship license. Here are the hoops you have to jump through to get one. It's not easy, and it's not cheap, and it doesn't help you if you have kids who need to get to school, or you don't live within walking distance of a grocery store, or you have a sick parent you'd like to visit a few times a week. The New Jersey Department of Transportation noted in a 2007 study on the impact and fairness of license suspensions that getting one of these restricted-use licenses can require a one-month to three-month wait, by which point you'd have to use the license to find a new job, rather than attend the one you've been fired from. 

Weatherford doesn't yet have a plan. His statement to Times columnist Steve Bousquet was largely a product of the shock he felt after reading a report stating that 685,489 Florida drivers lost their licenses last year. But if he's looking for something he can do, he should look to Wisconsin's Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability, which helps low-income residents in Milwaukee have their court fees reduced and their licenses reinstated.

Top image: shutterstock.com/alexskopje

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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