Linking longer commuting times to limited upward economic mobility

A recent study suggests that longer commute times are related to fewer people moving up the economic ladder:

Novara cites “recent research from Harvard University highlighting that commuting time has emerged as the strongest factor in determining whether a person escapes the cycles of poverty.”…

“These results are consistent with the view that the negative impacts of segregation may operate by making it more difficult to reach jobs or other resources that facilitate upward mobility. But any such spatial mismatch explanation must explain why the gradients emerge before children enter the labor market, as shown in Section V.E. A lack of access to nearby jobs cannot directly explain why children from low-income families are also more likely to have teenage births and less likely to attend college in cities with low levels of upward mobility. However, spatial mismatch could produce such patterns if it changes children’s behavior because they have fewer successful role models or reduces their perceived returns to education.”…

By Chetty’s numbers, commute time is up there with the fraction of single parents in terms of correlation. Family structure, is, of course, an age-old social concern; commuting time, not so much. All Chetty and his co-authors do is correlate, though they take a little stab at causation…

It’s not that commuting time is a magic bullet; no one factor Chetty studied is. But among the factors he did study—family structure, race and income segregation, school quality, social capital—it doesn’t get a lot of attention for its effects on social outcomes. And (as Yonah Freemark details) it’s something local governments can play a direct role in addressing.

“Spatial mismatch” is the idea that workers don’t live near the jobs they are likely to get. This happens often in metropolitan areas; cheaper housing is not necessarily near the jobs that those residents have or want to get. And I’m not sure cities and regions can do much about this; residential segregation tends to mean that higher-income and lower-income residents don’t often live near each other. The sort of white-collar jobs that could help people escape poverty may be located in suburban office parks, places that are not easily served by mass transit even if officials were willing to pour the money needed to get them up and running. If affordable housing and where businesses locate are simply left up to the market, they may have little incentive to locate near their workers.

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