59% percent of people are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Put another way, 59% of Americans are one paycheck away from losing their housing. People are feeling economic pain which stems from an unequal economic recovery that is rooted in an unequal, extractive economic system. Inflation, global conflict, and corporate greed have exacerbated an already dire situation: our dependence on gas to power our auto-centric state.

Today everyone is experiencing economic pain at the pump, but it’s particularly hard on low-income people who tend to drive older, less fuel-efficient cars, and who need to drive longer distances because the housing crisis has made it that much harder to live near job centers. 

With gas prices nearing $6 a gallon, and inflation the highest it's been in four decades, something has to be done. 

Here in California, Governor Newsom issued a massive $11 billion proposal that would offer short term relief while also advancing a long-term strategy to finally end our dependence on fossil fuels. 

High gas prices

Let’s start with the long-term benefits. His proposal includes $500 million to support active transportation programs, like walking and biking projects, and fast-tracks $1.75 billion in transportation equity investments. By funding active transportation projects, equitable deployment of zero-emission vehicles and charging infrastructure, and a whole slate of clean mobility options in low-income communities, the Governor is taking a both/and approach. We can move away from single-rider car culture, while also recognizing the reality that many people will still need their cars to get to work and school. 

In the short-term, the proposal includes funding three months of free transit in California. This is a strategy we know will benefit low-income people who continue to depend on public transit as their primary mode of travel. While this should eventually be made permanent, it is a great step in the right direction. 

Governor Newsom is also proposing to give California drivers a $400 rebate, which received a fair amount of attention. We get it. In essence, it seems to subsidize the very thing, fossil fuels, that we’re trying to move away from. But, to be clear, the money can be used on anything, including gas.  

Truthfully, we don’t love this strategy. But we’re willing to work with it. 

Would we rather that money be directed only towards low-income Californians for whom it will go the furthest? Or that the money be spent on clean transportation options like zero-emission vehicles or increasing all mobility options, reducing the total number of cars on the road? Of course. Will people decide to use a cash rebate to pay for gas? They might, but they can spend the money on anything they need or want.

But, the reality is that the vast majority of us are locked into a car centric lifestyle right now, and everyone is paying a lot more to live our lives, particularly low-income people. And, while low-income people rely more heavily on public transit than higher-income people, 78% of people in poverty are still forced to rely on cars to go about their daily lives.

I’d love to say that everyone could simply abandon their gas vehicles tomorrow and instead hop on public transit, or their bikes, or their electric vehicles. That’s the future we envision, but sadly is not one that is available to every person in this moment.  

So the Legislature’s original proposal to give people money to deal with the increased costs is the right one. And, Governor Newsom’s strategy to target drivers through the DMV is designed to provide a pathway for undocumented Californians to also access the funds. 

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piggy bank, money

Far from being an incentive to drive, data shows that putting cash in people’s pockets is a temporary means to keep people out of poverty. We support giving Californians some economic relief and letting them decide how to best use the funds, even if that means that some will decide to use it on gas.

Ultimately, we applaud this strategy, faults and all, because this is a proposal--a starting point. There is still time for the Legislature to debate components that it does not agree with and improve the overall package. 

Here are our recommendations to strengthen the proposal:

We urge the legislature to extend the time frame for making transit free in California, with the goal of making this permanent. We also encourage them to compare their proposed strategy for delivering economic relief to Californians against the Governor’s $400 rebate proposal, and decide which is the better approach for the people who need it most. 

We also strongly encourage the Governor and Legislature to expedite its commitment to move away from fossil fuels by increasing the funding from the proposed level of $675 million to $1 billion for transportation equity programs that give low-income people access to electric mobility. These are programs that have long been underfunded--despite high demand--and need a significant infusion of funding. 

We applaud the Governor’s commitment to rolling out these crucial dollars quickly, but the reality is that we need significantly more money to help low-income households make the transition to zero-emission vehicles. Without supporting a just transition, we are never going to meet our climate action goals. This means committing more funding to programs like Clean Cars 4 All and Clean Vehicle Assistance Program, which provide incentive funding to help low-income households get rid of their older car and into a clean vehicle. This will also help address charging issues, allowing low-income drivers to access additional funding for either at-home charging or public charging. It means investing in community-driven programs that provide alternatives to cars, like Clean Mobility Options and the Sustainable Transportation Equity Project

Over the past three decades, our work has shown that equity will not just “happen.” It must be intentional and deliberate. That’s why we’re committing to working with the Legislature and Governor to strengthen this proposal to maximize the benefit to communities of color and low-income communities. But this is a great start.

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Alvaro Sanchez is Greenlining's Vice President of Policy. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.