Inequality Matters: The distance between work and workers

450px-MATA_on_demand_bus_stop_Park_Ave_Memphis_TN_01When you apply the lens of economic equality to the headlines, the view changes from good news to not so much.

The Daily News reports that Williams-Sonoma Inc. is adding 900 jobs in an expansion of its distribution center in northwest Mississippi.

Bad news: In the Memphis MSA, the people who most need jobs don’t live in Northwest Mississippi. Worse news: These are gigs at a distribution center, which suggests that almost all of the jobs will be low-skilled and low-wage.

Worst news: Public transportation in the area sucks. So even if an unemployed man or woman had a car (and gas money) to get from North Memphis (where in some census tracts, the unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent) to Olive Branch, they’re unlikely to earn a living wage. BTW, the unemployment rate in Olive Branch is 5.7 percent. In Memphis, it’s 9.7 percent.

Research has confirmed what you intuitively know is true: Transportation is one of the key barriers to economic stability for many low-wage workers. If you can’t easily get to a job – either because you don’t have a car or public transportation is horribly inefficient, then you won’t be able to keep that job long.

Writes David Phillips of Georgetown University in a paper titled, “Getting to Work: Experimental Evidence on Job Search and Transportation Costs”:

Spatial mismatch of workers from jobs can cause adverse labor market outcomes for poor, urban individuals.

Situating the jobs closer to where the workers are is one of the strategies in Mayor A C Wharton’s anti-poverty plan, Blueprint for Prosperity. University of Memphis’ Dr. Maria Delavega identified three strategies to tackle poverty: Universal child care, better transportation and an increase in the minimum wage, which I wrote about here. But Memphis voters rejected a move to increase the gas tax by a penny to improve public transit, which means that this spatial mismatch is unlikely to improve.

Voting against the gas tax – and not supporting other measures to improve mass transit – hurts the working poor, which hurts Memphis.

What could YOU do to make a difference? Pressure elected officials to make public policy that supports all workers.

A suggestion comes from Joshua L. Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation:

If the President and Congress are interested in tackling poverty, which as leaders of the nation they absolutely should be, then they are both getting it wrong when it comes to transportation investment… Even though we would probably reach agreement on the idea that economic growth should be a goal of federal transportation investment, it will be much harder to reach agreement on how to measure that goal. There is a strong case to be made for using a measure of accessibility to jobs, as this is multimodal and takes into account congestion employment possibilities. But whatever the measures, they should specifically account for how well transportation is providing access to jobs and services that are components of fighting poverty.  The right measures will provide the incentives for the most effective policies.

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