Built Environment, Demographics

How job sprawl keeps New Jerseyans impoverished (and how we might be able to fix it)

I often blog about the somewhat abstract problems that the high level of suburban sprawl has created in New Jersey. But a recent New York Times article written by Mikayla Bouchard highlights a very specific problem created by the increasing distance between people and jobs. In her article, Bouchard highlights the role that simply getting to and from work plays in determining whether or not those living in impoverished neighborhoods have a chance to escape poverty. She writes:

“In a large, continuing study of upward mobility based at Harvard, commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty. The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.

The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.”

While the focus for most people sharing this article has been the issue of the country’s inadequate transportation networks (and rightfully so; transportation of all sorts is not only inadequately funded not only at the federal level, but often at the state level, as is the unfortunate case in New Jersey), I think there’s a larger issue at play to consider. After all, transportation is merely a means to an end.

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The bigger issue here is that over the past decade, the distance between people and employment in metropolitan regions has increased. A study by the Brookings Institution published in March details that on average, “the number of jobs within the typical commute distance for residents in a major metro area fell by 7 percent” between 2000 and 20012. As the policies that encourage suburban sprawl have pushed people further and further from the urban core of regions, employers followed suit. The above chart effectively shows which areas of the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metropolitan region have seen job loses and which have seen job gains. The findings of this study correlate to the experiences described in the New York Times article. The below table shows the raw numbers, including which groups saw the largest decrease in nearby jobs.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 10.30.57 AMAs the numbers detail, the highest poverty areas saw larger-than-average decreases in nearby employment. What this translates to is that the most vulnerable population must travel increasingly further to find meaningful employment. And given that most “lower” and “middle” class jobs haven’t seen wage increases in quite a long time, this group is most likely to spend a large amount of what little money they make just getting to and from distant workplaces. What this means is that the chance to save money, to afford an apartment or house closer to your job, is extremely small. In the end, the cycle of poverty is solidified because sprawl has pushed jobs further and further away.

You can see this play out by looking at where residents of the city of Camden work. A study done by CamConnect revealed that an astonishing 79% of residents had to travel outside of the city to work, and that 53% of residents travel outside of Camden County for work. (And despite the proximity of and easy public transit connections to Center City, “only 4% of residents held their primary job in Philadelphia”, highlighting the similar lack of middle class jobs in that city as well.) In a city with a poverty rate that hovers around 40%, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that many people make their daily commute on public transportation. What this boils down to is the most poverty-vulnerable population in the county has to travel the furthest for work and spend more of their time and money getting there. Our pattern of suburban sprawl has guaranteed that, for the time being, their chances of escaping poverty are small.

So, why is this bad? Other than the moral argument that it’s unacceptable that the richest country in the world seemingly happily keeps large swaths of people imprisoned in toxic environments, what does it have to do with anything? Well, an argument can easily be made that this isn’t just a moral issue. Taxpayers end up spending millions upon millions of dollars on social services for those living in neighborhoods that don’t have easy access to the kinds of things that suburbanites take for granted, like good schools, clean grocery stores, and yes, access to jobs well-paying jobs. Some people would happily take those services away altogether, but, tattered though the fabric of our social contract is, that’s not going to happen. This means that at the same time towns attempt to keep building subdivisions and office parks in the middle of farm land, the state is going to keep trying to mitigate the negative social cost of doing so, and no one is much the better for it.

What can be done about this? I propose that we can stop the series of tax breaks aimed at wealthy companies to move to cities like Camden. Noble though the idea may be, there’s a large amount of skepticism that local city residents will be the recipients of the jobs coming in. Instead, these incentives should be used to support local businesses, which have a much higher chance of actually resulting in employment for people living in the city. That would wipe out the drag on households that having to travel to distant jobs engenders. It would result in people having more money invest in locally, which would enrich the community and eventually mean fewer people need to turn to costly social services and benefits, saving taxpayers millions in the long run.

We could further incentivize locating a business near transportation. Downtown Camden, for instance, is awash in a sea of parking lots located very close to both heavy and light rail in the form of the PATCO High Speed Line and NJ Transit’s River Line. And speaking of the River Line, there are many towns along its length that could benefit from increased investment and jobs.

Overall, anything that tilts the balance back toward areas accessible by more people than distant office parks, the better the general health of the region will be. As we’re learning, there is a very real financial and social cost to the sprawl that’s pushed us all apart. We don’t all have to live in cities, but moving jobs a little closer to where the people are would make a huge difference toward future prosperity.