Guest opinion: Free Muni for all youth

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On Tuesday, April 3, the Municipal Transportation Agency board faces a decision between providing free Muni passes for all San Francisco youth or providing free passes to only low-income youth. ComMunity advocates and Sup. David Campos have identified the funding. We are calling on the MTA board to take this opportunity to invest in a new generation of transit riders by establishing free Muni for ALL youth.

The movement to win free Muni passes for youth originated from cuts of between 40 percent and 100 percent to yellow school busses over the next two years.  As a society, we have responsibility to make sure youth can access free public education — and as a city we have a responsibility to get kids to school even as state funding is eliminated.

Right now 60 percent of all trips in San Francisco are taken by car, and for years we have not seen a huge change in transit mode share. If San Francisco wants to meet our climate objectives, we need to take steps now to encourage young people to get out of their cars.  In New York City, a program of free transit passes for youth has created generations of loyal transit riders. In order to truly become a transit-first city, we need to do the same here.

While the struggle to afford bus fare is obviously a larger challenge for very low-income families, due to the high cost of living in the city, there are many working-class and middle-income families who also struggle with the costs of transit for their children. The costs of housing, food, healthcare, and transit add up quickly for San Francisco families and have all contributed to a crisis of family flight out of San Francisco.

San Francisco currently has the smallest child population of any major U.S. city. While this is complex problem, requiring a huge investment in affordable housing and a strategy to bring more working-class jobs to the city, by establishing free Muni for all youth the city can take a very concrete step forward towards making the city more family friendly. Thousands of families would benefit from an extremely modest investment of $8.7 million a year.

The low-income youth and parents who have been at the forefront of this movement advocating for the free youth passes are nervous about their own ability to access a low-income-only pass because of the bureaucratic challenges they experience trying to apply to other government programs. The Muni Lifeline pass for low-income adults is very hard to access, requiring applicants to wait for hours during a weekday at the Human Service Agency headquarters.

The Federal Free School Lunch Program requires parents to provide documentation of income level. Using a means test would be difficult and costly to administer and could exclude some low-income young people — especially those from undocumented families and the children of parents who work in the informal economy. San Francisco should not create paperwork barriers that will prevent our young people from getting to school.

The documentation required now to get youth clipper cards prevents many families from getting them. Immigrant families who do not have copies of all their birth certificates are prevented from getting youth passes when they encounter difficulties getting birth records from their native countries.

With all of those factors, it just makes sense to make Muni free for all youth.

Jane Martin is an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER).

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