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Photo Courtesy of Tulsa Transit

Poverty On Cruise Control: How Inadequate Public Transit Perpetuates Urban Poverty

By Deon Osborne

While decades of research have indicated poverty to be connected to societal and generational factors, we’ve overlooked a crucial cause of perpetual low-income communities: People can’t escape poverty if they don’t have a ride.

And while communities like Tulsa are broadening their transportation services with Modus, an innovative volunteer and part-time network of drivers who partner with local social services to get teens to their medical appointments, more cities across Oklahoma should invest in transportation services as a means of lifting people out of poverty.

Anyone who has ever used public transportation knows passengers wait at the mercy of unexpected delays and cancellations, insufficient routes and service times, and rising fare costs. For affluent communities seeking an alternative mode of transit every once in a while, these issues may be considered minor annoyances. But for low-income families who rely on it as their primary source of transportation, minor annoyances turn into major setbacks that threaten their livelihood, financially and physically.


“Do you have a reliable form of transportation?”

Most people recognize that question as one of the first essential questions an employer asks to determine whether to hire someone. Even though the majority of Americans use a vehicle to get to work, for low-income households with no car, relying on public transportation can negatively impact their ability to find and hold a job. Limited bus routes, limited service times, and unforeseen breakdowns or delays can be the difference between making ends meet and being unemployed.

To make matters worse, according to the National Association for State Community Service Programs, “jobs gravitate toward suburbs while the majority of low-income households reside in rural areas and central cities.”

Conservative politicians love to express the idea of “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps”. But when the geographic choices that companies and local governments enact negatively impact low-income households seeking work, one has to wonder whether our failing transportation system sets poor people up for failure.

Bike sharing initiatives, which allow residents to rent, ride and return a bike as needed offers opportunities for expanding public access to jobs and other destinations, a program Tulsa is heavily investing in, but care should be taken to ensure that the reach of these programs go beyond a downtown district or a suburban college campus.


It’s easy to take for granted the convenience of driving to the hospital for a checkup or to the pharmacy for a prescription refill. However, for people who can’t afford to purchase and maintain a vehicle, a trip to the doctor via public transit can turn what would typically be an hour-long affair into a three or four-hour ordeal, delaying needed treatment for the most vulnerable in society.

A recent article from the Atlantic considers inadequate public transportation to be a barrier to seeking health care, highlighting surveys that show low-income residents face severe difficulty utilizing public transit for health visits.

When it comes to low-income residents suffering mental health or substance abuse issues, a 2013 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that only 39% of abuse treatment facilities offered transportation assistance. At least 10% of clients expressed difficulty going through treatment due to lack of transportation. SAMHSA’s report warned that as more Americans achieve healthcare, more people will begin to seek treatment, indicating that “providers should consider maintaining existing transportation
services or adding such services.”

Oklahoma, like other states, does offer transportation assistance to health visits for residents on Medicaid. But as state leaders continually refuse to accept federal Medicaid expansion funding, while at the same time requiring that parents with dependent children make only 42% of the federal poverty line, a parent with two children cannot make more than $7,404 per year in-order-to qualify. This restriction severely limits the amount of Oklahomans who can access transportation assistance through Medicaid.

The University of Oklahoma’s social innovation program, The Mine, received a call to address transportation issues from the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in 2016. From that initiative, and with a grant from the Tulsa Area United Way, Modus was born.

Currently, run out of the Youth Services of Tulsa, Modus activates local drivers and works with local social service agencies to transport the estimated 6,000 teens “unable to access social services due to the lack of adequate transportation,” according to their website.


With Oklahoma’s poverty rate ranked above the national average, towns and cities that diligently evaluate and improve transportation access for low-income residents have a better chance of expanding social mobility, one of America’s most romanticized ideals. Oklahoma can do this by implementing, developing, and expanding solutions that are working in places like Tulsa.

An election year may be the perfect opportunity to push and hold accountable political candidates, advocacy groups and city leaders who seek to alleviate income inequality and extreme poverty, of which 1 in 6 Oklahomans experience.

Whether public assistance strikes you as a positive or negative aspect of American values, further ignoring, reducing, and even rescinding social services will lead to higher rates of poverty.

An equal opportunity to access reliable and cheap forms of public transportation means more people who can work and fewer people requiring financial assistance, in turn providing a wealthier economy and healthier communities.


Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has written for OU’s student newspaper the OU Daily as well as OKC-based Red Dirt Report. He now lives in Tulsa, where he works at a local youth shelter. He is also a former intern at Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...