Going Places: The Cost of Mobility

Got a long train (or bus or car) ride to work? You may have a longer climb to economic success, too. Places with lower mobility tend to have high commute times. Average commute time is the single strongest correlation with a neighborhood’s level of economic mobility. Vox’s Joseph Stromberg explains the connection between transportation and economic mobility this way:

Plenty of wealthy people lament how our car-centric infrastructure and limited transit make driving a necessity — and they have good reason to do so. But if you can’t afford a car, these problems take on an entirely different character: they steal your time and money, prevent you from taking some jobs, and make it harder to move up the economic ladder.

In the South, the typical metro resident can only access 26 percent of that metro’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit—lower than any other region. For suburban metro residents in the South, it’s less than 20 percent. And jobs near high-poverty neighborhoods have declined substantially since 2000 in most US and Southern metros, especially for many high-poverty suburban Southern neighborhoods. Let’s take a look at two large Southern metros with some of the lowest levels of economic mobility in the nation:

  • In Atlanta, GA, jobs near residents of high-poverty neighborhoods have decreased by 34.4 percent in the whole metro and by 20.3 percent in the suburbs.
  • In Charlotte, NC, jobs near residents of high-poverty neighborhoods have decreased by 13.9 percent in the whole metro and by 13.8 percent in the suburbs.

So, why don’t people just move closer to job opportunities are? To start, housing choice is constrained by the legacy of racist housing and development policies and practices that created and maintain residential segregation (which Fusion’s Sefira Fialkoff shows is still a reality for people in New Orleans). Another part of the problem is affordability; often low- or moderate-income workers can’t afford to live near job opportunities.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition recently released their annual Out of Reach report on the mismatch between wages and housing prices in the US. They looked at the average wages of renters and the minimum wages in each metro and compared wages to that area’s Fair Market Rent (a HUD calculation of what a person can be expected to pay for a modest rental in that area). In major Southern metros, the average wage of a renter is barely enough to afford housing:

avg wage

Source: NLIHC Out of Reach Report. Note: Fair Market Rent is the HUD’s best estimate of what a household seeking a modest rental unit can expect to pay in that market. Affordability is determined as rent being a maximum of one-third of income. 

For minimum wage earners, the situation is much worse. You have to work 63 hours a week in Louisville, KY, to afford a one-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent—and that’s the best in the South. In Virginia Beach, a minimum wage earner would need to work 98 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

min wage

Source: NLIHC Out of Reach Report. Note: Fair Market Rent is the HUD’s best estimate of what a household seeking a modest rental unit can expect to pay in that market. Affordability is determined as rent being a maximum of one-third of income.

With rents so high, low- and moderate-income workers in the sprawling metros of the South have to make tough choices about spending more of their income on housing or face the time (and money) crunch of a long commute to live in a more affordable area with lower job density. This is where the infrastructure of opportunity (e.g., good jobs and fair housing policy) needs to intersect with physical infrastructure (e.g., transit access)—to make economic security a reality for all of those trying to make a living in our region.