Kids, cars, and family life need to be understood within the context of historical shifts in family roles for parents and teens. Movement toward a global economy and eroding public services for families over the last three decades have created a situation where more family members must work to make ends meet (Ehrenreich 2001; Fine and Weis 1998; Heath 1999; Rank 2001; Schor 1992). Times are increasingly tough for a larger number of families, particularly those with lower incomes: immigrant laborers, single mothers, workers of color, and the downwardly mobile white working class. Making ends meet is increasingly difficult. These families, as they struggle to adapt to changing economic and social circumstances, turn to their teenage children to provide family carework and often wagework that will enable them to survive as families. In these circumstances, driving is a practical necessity, not a teenage pastime or a privilege.
Middle- and upper-middle-class parents also rely on their teen children to run errands and drive younger siblings around. Recall for a moment the scenario Jorge described early in this chapter, involving his family's busy schedule. Like Jorge's parents, many middle-class parents come to see the benefits of getting their children their own cars once they are able to drive legally. Driving a child to and from various organized activities while trying to fulfill myriad professional and personal obligations of their own is increasingly difficult.
To be sure, this is the changing reality parents and children confront as the economy demands longer working longer hours from family members at all income and occupational levels (Sassen 1998; Schor 1992). However, the services young adults provide for those families concentrated on the lower end of the economic ladder are not optional. This work is necessary for parents to generate income. These families are the least likely to be able to pay for childcare, eldercare, or other family services upon which middle- and upper-middle-class families increasingly rely (Sassen 1998). When their kids get cars, they are likely to put these cars to work helping the family.
For upper-middle-class families, buying a car for their teen often means something quite different. These families depend less on their teenage children for family carework because they can afford to pay for such services. Their kids will therefore enjoy greater freedom to pursue their own interests. For many upper-middle-class kids, this will mean greater investments in their futures—investments made possible only by disposable time. Since these kids are often given cars as gifts by parents, they are less likely to have to work to cover the expense of a car. In this way, the car reproduces the very class inequities it reflects, revealing and amplifying the fault lines between "the haves" and "the have nots." For teens living in families "on the fault line" life is harder than it should be.
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