If you were trying to land a job and get off welfare in Tennessee last summer, the state government was prepared to help you get a car. First Wheels, modeled on a program started by an Episcopal church in rural Warren County, gave welfare recipients seeking to buy their first car what amounted to an interest-free, no-down-payment loan, as well as assistance with the ancillary expenses that come with owning a vehicle.

It seemed a promising solution, particularly for welfare recipients living in rural areas that could not easily be serviced by buses or taxis. Within just a few months, First Wheels provided more than a hundred cars to TANF recipients. The state had a harder time administering its program than the Episcopal church, however, and problems quickly became evident.

Some of the people who received cars through First Wheels already had automobiles. Other TANF recipients who received cars failed to realize that they were taking on a liability and instead assumed that they could simply return the cars and wipe away their debt at any time. Nor was the state clear and consistent about who qualified for automobiles. At first, the county-level citizen panels responsible for making eligibility decisions often interpreted state guidelines in very different fashions.

The state has since tightened requirements considerably: Now only TANF recipients who have actually started work are eligible to take part in the program. "We've firmed up our policy quite a bit," says Sherri Carroll, manager of Tennessee's Families First Resource Development Program. "So we probably won't be giving away as many as we first did."

Despite its rocky start, some academics and job-training professionals point to First Wheels and similar programs as examples of the creativity states and localities are using to address the lack of reliable transportation between the areas where welfare recipients live and the areas where entry-level jobs are located--a problem urban planning experts call "spatial mismatch." Others, however, argue that such individualized approaches are neither practical nor cost- effective and that governments' focus--and funding--should be on improving mass transit. As growing numbers of welfare recipients begin to bump up against time limits for finding employment, this debate is likely to intensify.

For years, spatial mismatch was a phenomenon that academics discussed and policy makers generally ignored. "Under the system that was in place before welfare reform, most of the programs that had a work requirement, people could be excused from participating if the transportation wasn't there," says Charles Dickson, associate director of the Community Transportation Association of America.

That changed in 1996 when Congress abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children and created Temporary Aid for Needy Families, a block-grant program that requires welfare recipients to obtain jobs within two years of receiving benefits. Transportation quickly emerged as one of the most serious challenges for people making the transition from welfare to work. Estimates of car ownership among TANF recipients ranged from a low of 6 percent to a high of 20 to 40 percent. As a result, they were often forced to rely on inadequate mass-transit systems.

In order to determine how accessible suburban jobs were to welfare recipients, a number of academic researchers began to examine the public-transit connections between inner-city neighborhoods--where approximately 50 percent of TANF recipients lived--and job-rich suburban areas. What they found was startling. A 1997 study of Cleveland conducted by researchers from Case Western Reserve University found that half the job openings in suburban Cleveland were completely inaccessible to public transit; four-fifths of suburban jobs were inaccessible by any definition of a reasonable commute. A 1998 study of Boston found that only 32 percent of employers with a high number of entry-level jobs were located within a quarter mile of public transit. Studies in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, D.C., have come up with similar findings.

Nor was the problem exclusively urban. A 1995 study by the National Transit Resource Center found that about 60 million Americans lived in rural areas that were underserved by public transportation services. Some 41 percent of rural residents lived in counties that had no public transportation services at all. If anything, transportation was even more of a problem for rural TANF recipients than it was for urban welfare recipients.

In 1998, Congress moved to improve public-transit services for welfare recipients and poor communities by authorizing $750 million for a five-year Job Access and Reverse Commute Program. Its purpose: to encourage states, regional and local transit authorities, and municipalities to work across agency boundaries to improve the mobility of low-income residents and TANF recipients. Since then, the Federal Transit Administration has made almost 400 grants. Most have been used to extend bus lines to underserved areas or to extend service hours to evenings and weekends, when many low-income people work.

Many of these initiatives emulate transportation programs set up in the 1990s by non-profit organizations. One such influential initiative was a program established in 1992 by Suburban Job-Link Corp. with a $1 million grant from the city of Chicago. The not-for-profit organization created the Job Oasis Mobility Project, which sought to connect residents of a largely African-American enclave on the West Side of Chicago with the job-rich industrial parks that surround O'Hare International Airport. Eventually, it cultivated a large enough ridership on some routes that it was able to hand them over to Pace, Chicago's suburban transit system. By the mid-'90s, Suburban Job-Link was shuttling roughly 600 people a day from the West Side out to blue- collar jobs in suburbs such as Bensenville and Elk Grove.

Funding from the Job Access and Reverse Commute program is being used to extend mass transit to similarly underserved areas. Pace is providing evening and weekend bus service to the city of Joliet. The Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority is expanding bus routes in Oklahoma City to a local hospital and vocational training center that are not currently served by public transit. Communities in both the Mississippi Delta and west Tennessee are running shuttle services to the large Federal Express facility in Memphis. Los Angeles is planning to use its first Job Access grant to create an unanticipated-transportation-needs program, which would provide California welfare recipients who use public transportation with a guaranteed ride home in the event of a medical or child-care emergency.

According to a survey conducted last year by the U.S. General Accounting Office, 90 percent of first-year applicants were satisfied with the goal and intent of the program. Fifty-five percent of respondents thought that their Job Access-funded programs were helping low-income and welfare people get to work more easily.

Ironically, though, at the same time that many agencies are attempting to address the transportation needs of TANF recipients by strengthening their existing mass transit systems, the Suburban Job- Link Corp. itself has moved away from fixed routes. Last August, Suburban Job-Link pulled the plug on its fixed-route bus services. According to the organization's president, John Plunkett, fixed-bus- route services simply didn't work--and never would.

In setting up its bus routes, Suburban Job-Link made a major effort to keep commute times at or below one hour. "I'm of the opinion that in most cases, long commutes to suburban work sites are just very inappropriate," says Plunkett. "If a person has child-care responsibilities"--and half of all welfare recipients have children under the age of 5--"I wouldn't even consider it." But despite its best efforts, Suburban Job-Link could not meet this goal. According to Plunkett, the organization tried everything: setting up pick-up points, trying feeder services, using flexible routes. Nothing worked. "What we found was that is was just impossible to pull off with a fixed-route bus service," says Plunkett. Work schedules varied too widely, and with a typical commute of 20 to 25 miles, commute times were simply too great.

To Plunkett, the conclusion seemed clear: Fixed-route bus services are not a good solution to the most acute cases of spatial mismatch. Moreover, Plunkett believes that traditional mass transit will never solve the problem of spatial mismatch. "The city of Chicago takes up 225 square miles," notes Plunkett. "The metro area takes up more than 5,000 square miles. The notion that somehow we're going to bring public transit to the suburbs of the same variety that so many Chicagoans depend on--it's ridiculous."

Many scholars agree. "For some people, there's no question that public transit works," says Paul Ong, director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. "But that actually doesn't cover a huge proportion of the welfare population."

Plunkett's preferred solution is ride sharing. "I call it the Rodney Dangerfield mode of transportation--it gets no respect typically," he says. However, Plunkett notes that commute times for vanpools compare favorably with commute times for individual cars and are usually much faster than comparable bus routes. According to a study conducted by the Chicago Area Transportation Study, a one-hour car commute typically translated into a one-hour-and-10-minute van commute-- compared with a two- to three-hour public transit commute.

One transit system that has earned praise for its innovative transit programs is Chicago's Pace. In 1991, Pace created a small van pool service with three vans. Today Pace operates the second largest vanpool in the United States (after Seattle), with 325 vans on the road on a typical day.

Pace's van pools are largely self-organized. A group of five to 12 commuters typically organizes itself and then requests a Pace van. Each passenger pays a fare of about $85 a month (the exact amount depends on the mileage)--a price similar to the cost of a monthly bus pass. Each van sets its own schedule, and one member of the group serves as the van driver. In addition to riding for free, the driver can also use the van for personal purposes. Pace pays to maintain the vans, and also offers vanpool riders a "guaranteed ride home" in the event of an emergency.

Pace's van pool services are remarkably flexible--and remarkably affordable. According to Pace spokesperson Blaine Krage, passenger fares cover 100 percent of the vans' operating costs. In contrast, passenger fares cover only 40 percent of the operating costs of Pace's fixed route bus services. As a result, the vanpool "is probably the fast growing component of Pace," says Krage.

Meanwhile, programs such as First Wheels in Tennessee are taking more ambitious steps toward freeing TANF recipients from their dependence on mass transit. Many states quietly provide caseworkers with discretionary funds that they can use to help TANF recipients purchase cars. "We have clients who literally cannot get to work because of their line of business," says Mildred Pivoz, a program coordinator for Michigan's Work First program in Southfield, outside of Detroit. "Say your line of business is construction. One of the first questions is going to be, `Do you have reliable transportation?' Access to a bus line is not going to cut it." In those situations, Pivoz says, helping a "customer" buy a car can be the best solution. "I bought 29 cars last year," she adds.

Some skeptics, however, are concerned that programs that provide cars to TANF recipients are too much, too soon. "To me, one of the worst public policy things is where you see these car giveaway programs," says ride-sharing advocate John Plunkett of Suburban Job-Link. According to Plunkett, his organization estimated that even an inexpensive, used car in good condition would cost about $4,000 a year to own and operate--a price too high for most welfare recipients to afford. It's a concern Pivoz shares. "Interest rates are like 25 percent for these people," she notes. "I've tried to work out deals with these used-car dealerships; I've found maybe one I could work with."

The idea of encouraging automobile ownership has also run into trouble in areas with environmental and traffic issues. Los Angeles County has more TANF recipients (over 230,000) than any other county in the country, in addition to serious environmental and traffic problems. As Los Angeles County has proceeded with plans to develop a comprehensive welfare-to-work plan, expanded automobile access has emerged as a contentious issue.

Despite the problems associated with automobiles, however, many experts continue to see individual cars as potent solutions to TANF recipients' transportation needs. According to Neil Bania, a senior research associate at Case Western's Center on Urban Poverty and Social Change, recent studies conducted by the university "have found that those who have access to a car do much better in every way: They find jobs faster, keep them longer and are less likely to return to welfare." Paul Ong of UCLA agrees. "Enhancing public transit," he argues, "should be complemented by lowering barriers to car ownership," such as ending insurance red-lining that makes auto insurance prohibitively expensive in many inner-city neighborhoods.

Researchers on both sides of the welfare-transportation question, though, warn against generalizations. "The key is to think about this stuff systemically and in real spatial terms and not to think about it in caricatures," says Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. "General trends are great, but they have to be localized. People should be thinking about a menu, a range of responses."