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When Your Livelihood Is Too Far Away: Housing as a Platform to Jobs

September 2016


A couple years ago, some of my colleagues at USC set out to answer an old question with a new twist. They wanted to know how many jobs you could find if you lived in a low-income neighborhood. Specifically, they wanted to know how many jobs you could commute to.

Most Americans take it for granted that employment is place-based. You can’t work at a building that’s too far away. But what happens when you can only afford to live in a few of neighborhoods in a city, a reality that many low-income families face? How many jobs are too far away?

Four urban planners—Marlon G. Boarnet, Genevieve Giuliano, Yuting Hou, and Eun Jin Shin—decided to find out.

First, they did what urban planners have been doing for years. They collected data for a city—in this case, San Diego—and they broke it up into neighborhoods at different income levels. Then, they calculated how many jobs are within a thirty-minute commute by car or by public transit. They found, consistent with previous findings, that people in low-income neighborhoods could access nine times as many jobs by car as they could by public transit.

This, by itself, was not news. Not to urban planners, at least. But it’s surprising to most Americans. Most of us have cars, and most of us don’t live in concentrated poverty. We can get to the jobs. The people who live in these neighborhoods typically can’t, because they often don’t own a car.

Economists and planners have been studying this problem since John Kain published a seminal study in 1968. He called it “spatial mismatch”.

At the height of the civil rights movement, Kain analyzed the Detroit Area Traffic Study from 1952 and the Chicago Area Traffic Study from 1956. He found that employers were significantly less likely to hire blacks at further distances from the inner-city “ghettoes.” Importantly, it wasn’t because they couldn’t do those jobs. The occupations that didn’t employ blacks outside the ghetto were disproportionately filled by blacks inside the ghetto. They were clearly willing and able. They just couldn’t travel to the jobs.

Kain was really trying to understand the effects of housing segregation. So he asked himself, would blacks have higher employment if they lived in white neighborhoods that had the same income and occupational characteristics as them? Based on their ability to access jobs far away, he estimated that blacks would have 4,000 to 9,000 more jobs in Detroit and over 20,000 more jobs in Chicago. In both cities, spatial mismatch was leading to job loss for 15 percent of the black population.

You might think spatial mismatch isn’t as bad as it used to be. We don’t live in the Jim Crow era anymore. Does segregation still matter?

I’ve shown in previous Home Matters posts that it does matter, but consider the timeline. Kain’s data only showed us the beginning of “white flight.” In the decades after 1956, upper- and middle-income white households left the inner cities, triggering a downward spiral of tax revenue loss, government service deterioration, property value erosion, and blight. And where the workers went, the employers followed, hollowing out the job base that Kain found to be employing black workers in the cities. Rather than going away, the problem got worse.

Half a century later, Marlon Boarnet and his team have found that we’ve made far too little progress. It was what they did next, though, that surprised us all.

They realized that previous studies were missing an important part of a worker’s commute. They had measured how long it took to travel on public transit, but they didn’t measure how long it took to travel to public transit.

Most people don’t live right next to a bus stop or a subway station. They have to walk several blocks, maybe even a mile, and then they may have to do it all over again to get from their transit stop to the job itself. Urban planners call it the “first/last mile.”

When the USC researchers added the first/last mile to the commute time, the numbers changed dramatically. Instead of having access to nine times as many jobs, car drivers now had thirty times as many job options as their low-income peers who relied on public transit. That’s the magnitude of the spatial mismatch.

In a society striving for equal opportunity, 30-to-1 is a devastating failure.

Don’t let the context fool you. Spatial mismatch is not only an inner city problem. When I was at HUD, we talked a lot about “housing as a platform.” We were talking as much about housing in rural areas and in suburban communities in places like the Rust Belt, where middle-class jobs have been outsourced or automated, as we were about large cities like San Diego. No matter where you live, your home is a platform to employment.

To me, this new research suggests that the problem cannot be solved by transportation alone. Surely we would benefit from more transit stops and more creative policies to get people to transit stops, but a gap that large cannot shrink to zero unless the geography itself changes. We need more jobs in these neighborhoods.

No one should feel that they have to escape their community to survive in today’s economy, and they certainly shouldn’t feel that good jobs are out of reach, no matter how far they travel. Every time we treat a community like it is the problem, we push the jobs further away, and the mismatch grows.

There is only one truly sustainable solution: We must invest in communities that lack sufficient opportunities. We must build wealth at home, the one place where the American dream should never be too far away.

This article is written by Dr. Raphael Bostic. He is the Judith and John Bedrosian Chair in Governance and the Public Enterprise at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.

Photo Credits:

Commuter photo courtesy of The Associated Press, 2012


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