In 1996 Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act - also known as the welfare reform act - which abolished the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant program. This new law created a system of time-limited benefits and work requirements. For millions of families, the urgency of finding work or allowable work activities in the face of an approaching deadline brought to light the many institutional and emotional challenges that unemployed people confront. Transportation was one of those challenges.
Even prior to welfare reform, organizations of low-income people and some local governments already understood that the transportation barriers faced by low-income people were preventing them from finding and keeping jobs in the low-wage labor market.
Responding to these concerns federal agencies began piloting demonstration projects in the mid-1990s to test a variety of transportation strategies for addressing gaps in employment transportation services. Evaluations from one of these demonstration programs, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Joblinks program, heightened the awareness of the importance of transportation to successful welfare-to-work initiatives. It recommended that sufficient funding be available for project planning, on-going coordination and sustainability of future employment transportation initiatives.
In the wake of welfare reform, community groups began organizing to ensure that former and current welfare recipients have access to transportation. In 1998, a national coalition of progressive local and national organizations—the Access Coalition— emerged to advocate for a new federal grant program that would support local transportation initiatives to connect low-income families to job opportunities. When Congress enacted the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) —- a $217 billion transportation bill —- it included up to $750 million over five years for the Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) competitive grant program.
The Access Coalition, convened by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) and made up of the Transportation Equity Network (a national coalition of grassroots organizations working on low-income transportation issues staffed by the Center for Community Change) and organizations including Community Transportation Association of America, were influential in extending the scope of the JARC program to:
- Include low-income people whose family income is at or below 150 percent of the poverty line,
- Meet the needs of both un-served and under-served rural communities, and
- Ensure that successful applicants involve a broad-based coalition of community stakeholders in its planning process.
The JARC program has funded about 400 projects, using matching funds from other federal programs, such as TANF, Social Services Block Grants, Welfare-to-Work and HOPE VI. These projects are tackling many, if not all, of the types of transportation gaps mentioned in the list above.