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Vehicle Donations Can Be Key To Fighting Poverty in Baltimore and Beyond

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of BaptistLife, the official newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.

Baptist Family is extremely thankful for the many different kinds of support we get from generous people across Maryland and Delaware. Often, that support takes the form of volunteer time or a monetary donation. For example, volunteers help sort, deliver, and distribute back to school items and Christmas gifts. Financial support allows us to provide for the material needs of families in deep crisis, to provide housing and other services, and it keeps our programs staffed.

Last month we were blessed by the generosity of a family of donors from Sykesville, Maryland, who responded to a very particular need with a very special form of support. They donated their minivan to Baptist Family to pass along to a single mother and her growing family.

Nationwide, transportation is a major barrier to families in crisis. Without reliable transportation it can be impossible to find childcare for kids too young to enroll in school. The lack of transport, particularly in the suburban areas of the mid-Atlantic states, can make it next to impossible to find employment, or to travel to job training programs with any kind of regularity.

The Brookings Institution has found a correspondence between car ownership and productivity. In an article written by Jen DeGregorio, Brookings scholar Margy Waller states that “people with a car are more likely to work, work more hours, and have a higher level of income.”

One of the most enduring images of Hurricane Katrina is that of thousands of people stranded in the New Orleans Superdome taking shelter. In the aftermath of the storm, some wondered why more of those in the Superdome (and sheltering in other locations around the city) did not simply flee. One answer was a lack of transportation. Many people simply did not have the means to evacuate their families from the city ahead of Katrina’s arrival.

Proceeding from that finding, the Brookings Institution conducted a survey of U.S. cities, gauging the rate of car ownership. The study found that Baltimore had the fourth lowest rate, with nearly one third of the adult population without access to an automobile.

This low rate is not due to an excellent mass transit system filling in for car ownership. Baltimore’s bus and rail system is aging in its equipment and limited in its scope, and not a complete solution for transport even in Baltimore City. Outside the city limits, transport in the suburban counties is even sparser.

Instead, Baltimore’s low rate of car ownership can be traced to the high costs of buying and registering a vehicle in Maryland, combined with the very high cost of insuring a car in Baltimore City. Baltimore City’s average insurance rate is 60% higher than rates for comparable vehicles and drivers in Baltimore County.

Many nonprofit organizations use vehicle donations as a type of fundraising. Donors arrange for the organization to pick up an older car, and the nonprofit sends the car to an auction. In this scenario, the nonprofit turns the vehicle into cash to support its activities, and the donor is usually allowed to take a tax deduction. The Internal Revenue Service has recently changed its rules regarding the amount of the deduction allowed (generally the “blue book value” of the vehicle is not accepted. Instead, the IRS wants donors to deduct the fair market value of the vehicle).

In Baptist Family’s case, we were able to match the vehicle with a family in need, thus putting an older (but lovingly maintained) minivan to immediate use. The donor could still claim a tax deduction, but the well-running vehicle is being put to good use by a family in need. Already, the mother to whom the car was given has begun using it to travel to her new job, and to shuttle her children safely around their community.

Safe and reliable transportation makes a great and positive difference in the life of a family in crisis. It can be the key to the rebuilding of a family’s economic life, and give them the opportunity to flourish after a new start.

By Tim Durkin