Driving school

The higher cost of driving lands heavily for those moving around the Seattle area

LAKEWOOD — “Look at this,” Dora Poqui said, nodding at her television as she previewed the evening news. “Every time I see the news. $5.27 for gas. I know our pockets are going to hurt this week.

In fact, Poqui’s pockets have been hurting most weeks lately. Gone are the days when she and her husband thought they could save up to buy a house. The pandemic has landed hard on them, and now they share an apartment in Lakewood with his mother, who dozed in a recliner, and his granddaughter, who was holed up in one of two bedrooms down the hall. Instead of a house, Poqui now saves for meat and grains, for a family member’s funeral in Mexico and, as an in-home caregiver, for the cost of driving a car.

“A lot of these clients need transportation,” she said of her job. “That’s why they hire you because they need someone to do their essential job.”

Poqui assumes that she spends nearly $700 a month on her car. The payouts alone exceed $400. There is also insurance, regular maintenance, license cards. Then there’s gasoline, the cost of which has been skyrocketing for months. The state, which contracts her for her job as a caregiver, reimburses some of her expenses, but that’s a fraction of the reality, she says. The weight of it all is heavy enough that she finds herself having to choose between renewing her tabs or servicing her brakes.

“When do you earn enough to say, ‘OK, I’m going to relax and not worry about that paycheck? ‘” she said.

For the working class of the Puget Sound area, teetering on the brink of poverty, the cost of fuel and owning a car is another part of the larger picture of how difficult living in the Seattle area is. In February, the US Census Bureau reported that nearly 600,000 people in Washington said it would be “very difficult” to meet basic household expenses. In August, that number was just under 400,000.

A $60 tank of fuel might not take up the biggest chunk of Poqui’s budget, but it does dirty the wounds already left by the cost of rent, groceries and utilities.

Like other “essential workers,” there are few opportunities for Poqui to cut the cost of driving. Her most recent client lived in Tacoma, where Poqui cannot afford to live, forcing her to commute 30 minutes each way. Public transport near her is limited and, in addition, she sometimes has to drive her clients to appointments or pick up medicine from the pharmacy. Working remotely is of course not an option.

So she’s looking elsewhere for cuts: eating meat twice a week instead of every day, adding more water to the soup, waiting for that new pair of shoes.

The cost of owning a car was increasing even before the pandemic. The cost of financing a car jumped 24% in 2019, according to AAA, pushing the annual cost of owning a new car to nearly $10,000. As the pandemic has scrambled the normal flow of the supply chain and processing chips have become scarce, the price of buying a used vehicle has rocketed into orbit. And then came the spike in gasoline prices, now the highest since 2008 after adjusting for inflation.

It’s an expense that many may not fully understand; a survey of 6,000 drivers in Germany found that car owners underestimate the cost of owning a vehicle by an average of 50%. Near Seattle, it’s a burden likely to be borne the heaviest by those already outside the big cities.

“If you go to some of these satellite cities, that’s where you’ll very often find people who have enough money to pay for themselves and are enduring the commute,” said Jacob Vigdor, a professor at the University of Washington. . Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. His current research, to be published soon, shows that suburban and suburban dwellers are struggling the most, despite the slightly lower cost of living.

And so, as owning a car becomes more expensive, Vigdor said, “you take the labor component that was already most economically squeezed and squeeze it harder.”

Breakpoints

Over the past month, gasoline prices in Washington have jumped 80 cents a gallon to $4.74 on Friday, according to AAA. This is a trend that has been going on for months and accelerated with the start of the war in Ukraine.

Maria Valera’s home on Aurora Avenue North is a one-bedroom apartment she shares with two of her four boys. “I feel like Alice in Wonderland,” she said, quickly scanning her living space. “The apartment gets smaller as my kids get older.”

It’s the only way she can afford to stay in Seattle; her two young children are about to graduate from high school and she doesn’t want to force them to change school districts so late.

Valera works at Sea-Tac Airport, preparing meals for flights and airport lounges. Her shift starts at 3 a.m. “I wake up at 2 a.m.,” she said. “I have to hop on the freeway at 2:30 no matter what, because it’s almost half an hour.”

Even when gas was cheap, life in Seattle was a struggle for Valera, a widowed single mother. With a budget already stretched to some point, the difference of $20 a week in gas means she waters down her laundry detergent and eats peanut butter and jelly so her kids can have bigger portions of pasta. .

“We have no choice,” she said. “It looks like modern slavery.”

Inflation, which has reached nearly 8% over the past 12 months, disproportionately affects low-income workers globally. Analysis by The Washington Post found that the lowest-paid 20% of earners spend a significantly larger proportion of their wages on necessities such as housing, food and gas, and rising costs are exacerbating this gap.

“The breaking point is going to be an individual thing,” Vigdor said. “There is a straw that breaks the camel’s back. For some people, gas prices might be that.

Valera’s base salary is approximately $40,000 per year. She puts in enough overtime to push that figure to over $50,000, but her income is still close to the bottom quarter of Seattle residents. And yet, she pays the same price at the pump for gasoline. She has few alternatives to driving; taking public transit would mean getting out of bed around midnight.

The current public transit system is not designed for people like Valera, said Alex Hudson, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, which advocates for more alternatives to cars.

“We’ve forced people to live in a world where there are very few real or practical options for anything other than a car,” Hudson said.

Valera almost hit breaking point recently when her car broke down on the side of the road at 2:30 a.m. She managed to catch an Uber to work, but had to take out a $600 payday loan to replace the car’s alternator, plus $95 in interest.

“Sometimes in a moment you just want to type,” she says, “and say, please, time out. Free time.”

Poqui is now in the process of acquiring a new client: her mother, who is in the early stages of dementia. Once the paperwork is over, that could mean fewer miles on the road, less money for the gas tank.

But she sees a deeper problem, opened up by the new focus on gasoline prices. Caregivers like her are considered essential, but she’s only earning $19 an hour right now, and even that rate is only because she receives a $2 an hour hazard pay tied to the pandemic. “There won’t be enough carers, because who wants to work at this rate?” she says. “You know Target pays $24? »

“You can bet there are people who can’t get to work because they can’t afford gas to get there,” Hudson said, “and they have no other option”.

Vigdor looks back on his work showing that it’s the people just outside the cities who live closest to the edge, more so than those inside the cities. “They’re not necessarily planning to use $5 a gallon of gas, so the struggles we see on the fringes of those metro areas are going to get worse,” he said.