Op-Ed: Homeless and Working Poor Need Better Access to Driver’s Licenses in NJ

Renee Koubiadis | December 16, 2019 | Opinion
Without a license, people may have limited access to essential services and the means to help their families thrive

The economy of the United States is growing and expected to continue growing over the next few years. The unemployment rate continues to decline steadily, and New Jersey has made recent progress to give an economic lift to our working and middle-class families by raising the minimum wage, boosting the state Earned Income Tax Credit, and giving low-wage workers paid sick days. Yet New Jersey families are still feeling the pinch at home. Although it is one of the most prosperous states in the nation, we continue to be challenged by poverty and homelessness. One way that New Jersey can advance progress toward eliminating poverty is by expanding access to driver’s licenses to more residents.

We know the statistics of homelessness, or we see people on the street or getting assistance at a shelter. However, homelessness can also look like the person next to you in the grocery store, at work, or school. It is a person who is staying with a different relative or friend every week or month, or someone living in their car while working two jobs. Homelessness can look like many things, and the challenges to overcome it continue to be immense. Access to driver’s licenses can be a key for many residents maintaining housing and financial stability.

The ALICE report, which measures the working poor or those who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, shows about 38.5% or almost two out of every five New Jersey residents fit into this category. These working poor struggle to afford basic necessities such as food, housing and child care. Access to transportation can be a problem, as can a lack of access to a driver’s license. Many people who have been homeless at some point or have been housing-insecure — having to move from one place to another quickly — have lost access to documentation or have trouble documenting where they live. However, to keep our families thriving, we need all workers to maintain access to a driver’s license, especially as New Jersey now transitions to the 10-point Real ID license.

Limited mobility

Research from New Jersey Policy Perspective shows that over 288,000 low-income New Jersey residents currently lack access to a state-issued driver’s license. Without a driver’s license, parents and care providers are further challenged in running their households and keeping their families stable because of their limitations in mobility and access to essential services, such as health care and social services.

For individuals experiencing poverty and homelessness, a driver’s license can help a person gain access to services, potentially find housing, and get to work. A driver’s license can be a first step to entering the workforce and taking care of themselves and loved ones. For example, a driver’s license is used not just for driving to get to a doctor’s appointment but as a form of ID at the doctor’s office. In New Jersey, for people without access to public transportation, a driver’s license becomes necessary to keep the lights on and put food on the table, a particular struggle for the working poor.

While many who will benefit are our immigrant neighbors and families, making access to driver’s licenses available to more residents will also improve mobility and opportunity for many marginalized populations included survivors of violence, veterans, and those who are formerly incarcerated and reentering society. These are all groups that already have a higher risk of homelessness and poverty.

The New Jersey Legislature has the opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of residents by passing A-4743/S-3229 that would allow more residents to gain access to a standard driver’s license. As legislators consider their vote on this important bill, I urge them to consider the implications for all working families and households.