Justice Reform Efforts and Effects on Self-sufficiency (2021-2022)


One of the goals of the U.S. government’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program is to promote employment as a way of reducing the need for low-income families to rely on public assistance. To support employment, the TANF program has needed to consider barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. 

Lack of access to transportation has long been one such barrier, with most research focusing on lack of car ownership. Another type of transportation barrier that is less well understood is lack of a valid driver’s license. Without a valid driver’s license, individuals lack legal transportation that allows them to get to jobs and attend to other family needs. 

Millions of people have had their licenses suspended for failure-to-pay fines from traffic citations. By disrupting employment, revoking the licenses of those who cannot pay court fees can further disrupt their ability to pay, creating a vicious cycle and preventing self-sufficiency. However, there is little research on the cost incurred by individuals and families of revoking licenses and/or the potential benefits for employment and self-sufficiency of working to reinstate individuals’ licenses.

Project Description

This project seeks to address two issues of significance to human services and other local policymakers and community organizations. The first is how the employment and social services receipt of low-income people, including those who rely on TANF and other social services, is affected by a policy that helps to reinstate driver’s licenses. The second is how reinstatement can lead to improved benefits for families with dependent children, including improved parental and child well-being. Understanding how having a suspended license reinstated can remove barriers to employment and self-sufficiency, therefore, will fill a key gap in the literature on family self-sufficiency and stability and in the practice of providing social services to low-income people.

To investigate whether having a driver’s license reinstated improves employment and self-sufficiency, this project will evaluate the Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) program. The team will pursue a multifaceted recruitment strategy, including phone, email and digital outreach. Team members will use both an intent-to-treat approach, considering individuals as “treated” once their case is processed for court-fee relief, regardless of whether they get their license reinstated, and a treatment-on-the-treated approach, examining those who reobtain their license via the court-relief program. 

All analyses will focus on two groups: the full sample, which includes all eligible individuals identified for the DEAR program, and the subset of individuals with a dependent child in the home. Outcomes for the full sample will be analyzed using administrative records. Outcomes for the family substudy will utilize survey data and administrative records.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Academic publications; findings shared with local policy partners to inform continued criminal justice and human services efforts; broader policy dissemination to U.S. government


Summer 2021 – Summer 2022 

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Work on initial literature review; organize and prepare qualitative data for coding
  • Fall 2021: Review relevant literature, concepts, and programs/policies; develop coding scheme for qualitative data; code qualitative data
  • Spring 2022: Develop specific paper topics and research questions; analyze data to address research questions; draft manuscripts
  • Summer 2022 (optional): Polish and finalize manuscripts

This Team in the News

Master's Student Honored for Her Outstanding Mentorship

See related team, Examining Racial Inequality and Reform Through Driver's License Access (2022-2023).


Image: Driving, by Dennis Yang, licensed under CC BY 2.0


Team Leaders

  • Clinton Boyd Jr, Samuel DuBois Cook Ctr on Social Equity
  • Anna Gassman-Pines, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Adrienne Jones, Public Policy and Sociology–Ph.D. Student
  • Warren Lowell, Public Policy and Sociology–Ph.D. Student

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Katherine LoBue, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • James McIntyre III, Economics (BS)
  • Jada Purkett
  • Richard Qi, Economics (BS), Political Science (AB2)

/zcommunity Team Members

  • City of Durham
  • Durham County Department of Social Services