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Kick All the Tires First

September 14, 1997

Eliminating barriers that keep welfare recipients from holding jobs is a worthy goal, but Supervisor Frank Schillo's latest plan reminds us of some used cars we have test driven: Potential problems are so numerous that the buyer should be wary indeed.

Schillo wants the county to guarantee low-cost loans to help welfare recipients buy cars to get to work. Under the state's welfare reform law, which takes effect in January, recipients will have two years to find jobs. About half of Ventura County's 8,600 families on welfare do not own cars and many others own clunkers.

Sure, a car for every adult is the California dream. Teen-agers, senior citizens and everyone in between know that a car is liberating and convenient.

But it's also costly to buy, expensive to maintain, fuel and insure, and with one split-second of bad luck it can land the owner in the hospital, in court or even deeper in debt.

That's why we advise a thorough inspection of all the potential pitfalls--and all the other options--before driving this idea off the lot.

Under Schillo's proposal, the county would beg or buy used cars from public and private fleets, then have them checked out by auto-repair students at Ventura College. A welfare recipient who finds a good job but needs a ride could go to the county credit union for a loan, which would cover insurance as well. Repayment would be stretched over a longer than usual term, so payments would be low, and a cut would go to the county to pay for the program. The county would deposit money in the credit union to guarantee the loan.

Should the owner lose the job and become unable to make the payments, the credit union would repossess the car and sell it to another person in the program, according to Schillo.

"It's not for everybody," he said, but in some cases such an option could make the difference between success in a new job and failure.

Our concern is whether this approach would merely replace one form of dependence on government with another. Owning a car is expensive and complicated, especially if there is an accident or need for repairs, and that could add to the burden government is trying to reduce.

And if that car breaks down, would the county be responsible--either legally or in the eyes of the nominal owner?

Ventura County is a leader in the nationwide push to turn welfare checks into paychecks. Innovative ideas are exactly what is needed to help each person leaving the welfare rolls become a self-supporting citizen. The car proposal is only one of many strategies being explored on the transportation issue alone. Other options such as rides from volunteers, subsidized taxi rides, carpools, even bicycles might do the job for some commuters.

Unless it proceeds with the greatest of caution, Ventura County should stay out of the used-car business.

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