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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008

A Simple Solution to Unemployment

Driver’s licenses are key to finding work

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Some low-income Milwaukee women were able to boost their wages by 62% just by earning back their driver’s licenses.That eye-popping outcome was produced through the efforts of the Center for Driver’s License Recovery & Employability, a collaboration of Justice 2000, Legal Action of Wisconsin, the Municipal Court of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College.

“Not having a driver’s license limits your opportunities and potential,” said Nichole Yunk, the Center’s director. “People might take it for granted and not see it as an important part of the overall solution to poverty, but it is.”

The Center advocates for low-income Milwaukee County residents who lost their driving privileges due to their failure to pay fines, nonviolent drug offenses, driving with a suspended license or causing an accident when they didn’t have insurance.

Not having a license makes it difficult—if not impossible—to find or retain a job. Many employers want or require their workers to have a valid driver’s license, or, at the very least, not to have outstanding legal issues and fines. Job growth is highest in the suburbs, where mass transportation from the city runs infrequently, if it runs at all. And parents find it difficult—sometimes impossible— to get to and from day care and their job sites if they depend on the bus.

What’s more, the people who are likely to lack a license are the most likely to be hit by a tough economy. According to a 2005 study, only 47% of Milwaukee County’s African-American adults and 43% of Hispanic adults had a valid driver’s license.

Retired Milwaukee Municipal Court Judge James Gramling, who is on the Center’s board of advisers, said that in many cases an individual’s only hurdle to clear before landing a job is restoring their driving privileges with the Center’s help. “So many times I’ve heard people say, ‘I cannot work without a license,’” Gramling said.

More Barriers for Men

The earnings news came from an independent audit of the program conducted by Lois Quinn and John Pawasarat at the UW-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute. The study found that women who earned back their driving privileges saw their income rise 62%, while those who didn’t saw only a 4% increase. Women’s incomes rose at all levels of the earnings scale when they earned back their driver’s licenses, and unemployment levels dipped from 45% to 37%.

Men, on the other hand, didn’t see that sort of improved earning power. Their wages only increased an average of $106 per quarter after they earned back their driving privileges. But that result is more closely linked to these men’s statuses as ex-offenders, the study notes.

Yunk said she was disappointed with this result, considering that the unemployment rate for African-American men in Milwaukee is about 50%. “When a condition is chronic it’s going to take longer to fix,” Yunk said. “There are more barriers to overcome.”

Alternatives to Suspensions

Yunk said the Center forms unique strategies for its clients based on their needs. Some have only one fine to pay before having their license restored, while others are bogged down by more complex issues in a variety of courts around the state.

The majority of these clients had their license suspended or revoked not because they are unsafe drivers, but because they could not pay their fines. Yunk said it’s unfair to penalize poor people with a financial penalty that further hinders their ability to earn a living, especially when the fines are not even related to driving.

The Center has been working with judges to create alternatives to fine payment. Clients have worked 8,250 hours on community service projects in the past 16 months to earn back their driving privileges. “Their currency is their labor,” Yunk said.

Milwaukee Municipal Court Judge Phil Chavez has been carrying out a pilot program that sends unpaid fines to collection agencies, which deduct the money from an individual’s tax returns. “We’re trying to find another way for them to pay for their suspensions,” Chavez said. “It’s not amnesty. They’re taking responsibility.”

Other solutions must come from the state Legislature. Wisconsin is one of 13 states that still adhere to a Clinton-era mandate that requires judges to suspend an individual’s driver’s license for six months after any nonviolent drug conviction. In some cases, Gramling has helped clients negotiate with judges to begin mandatory six-month drug violation suspensions sooner so that they can be fulfilled more quickly. State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and state Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) introduced a bill in the last session that would give judges more discretion in these cases; they’ve promised to reintroduce that bill in the coming year.

“The mandatory suspension is an ineffective policy lever,” Yunk said. “Less than 1% of these violations have anything to do with a vehicle.”

Taylor and Grigsby also introduced a bill that would give judges more discretion in cases of operating while suspended (OWS) violations. Currently, an individual’s license is revoked after the fourth OWS conviction. Then, when an individual’s license is restored, he or she must purchase high-risk SR-22 insurance for three years, which is often too expensive for low-income drivers.

In the long term, Yunk said it would be best to end the link between the failure to pay a fine and the revocation of a driver’s license, since the lack of a license leads to a self-fulfilling cycle of poverty. And that has a disproportionate effect on the poor and minorities.

“The unfortunate thing is that the law as it is written is very much based on an ability to pay fines,” Yunk said. “It’s based on economics and class, and that clearly overlaps with race. So we believe it has an unconstitutional effect in terms of how it’s affecting people of color.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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