The New Geography of American Jobs
Digging into the latest US jobs report reveals the need to close the gap between economic opportunity and affordable housing for low-income earners.
While the March US jobs report showed the number of employed at the highest level ever, the sectors reporting the greatest gains highlight what has made the recovery feel lacking to many.
As Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, noted in a recent blog post, those fields that have grown the fastest in the recovery pay on average 22% less than those that are growing slowly (retail, for example, pays on average $17.74 per hour, in contrast to manufacturing and mining, which pay $25.58 and $31.51 per hour, respectively. Both fields sustained continuing losses in the latest jobs report). The shift toward low-paying work, together with longer-term trends in housing are contributing to inequality, says Michael A. Stoll, professor of public policy at UCLA.
As Stoll explains, while low-wage workers might once have found work and affordable housing in cities, today they are being squeezed out by gentrifying city neighborhoods where a majority of jobs go to high-skill knowledge workers. To pursue appropriately skilled jobs, low-wage workers must look to the suburbs. “Low-income individuals’ economic opportunity is constrained because their residential opportunities are usually going to be geographically far from where the properly skilled matched job opportunities [are] in the suburbs, so, they’re harmed in those ways.”
While the changing nature of work is often spoken of in terms of headcount or technical innovations, it also has a real estate dimension, as Stoll relates. Low-skill jobs such as retail often concentrate in the suburbs, both because the lower cost of land in the suburbs is conducive to these industries (think of the square footage of big-box stores) and also because in industries like retail consumers demand local service. “We have concomitant growth in these kind of low-skill and middle-skill jobs, which is disproportionate relative to high-skilled jobs in the extent to which they suburbanize,” he says. For this reason, and because many municipalities favor single-family housing development and have restrictions on building height, Stoll explains, “you get concentration of tall buildings in city centers, which are dominated by high-knowledge industries that don’t require a lot of space.” But while higher-skill workers can afford trade-offs such as commute time for bigger houses (in other words, work in cities and reside in suburbs), the lesser financial resources of low-skill workers means that their “housing choices are limited to low-income cities or lower-income older suburbs, which are also far from where these high-growth areas are.”
These are the kind of economically stagnant older suburbs that have increasingly garnered coverage of the suburbanization of poverty in recent years. One piece last year in Al Jazeera America, for example, illustrated how the lack of public transportation options in these suburbs made workers less able to react to opportunities on short notice; a piece in Time captured how even when retail jobs do exist in primarily lower-income suburbs, those suburbs are plagued by a lack of safety nets and social programs in comparison with urban areas.
Stoll says that the solution to the new geography of opportunity is housing policy first, and then transportation policy. “We need to think creatively about how you also provide multi-family housing that allows lower- and middle-income people to be able to locate where these low-skill job opportunities are disproportionately located. The problem with job sprawl for low-income individuals [is] that [it] is really hard to find an efficient transportation system that’s cost-effective to get people from low-income suburbs in central cities to high-income suburbs,” says Stoll “It’s either going to cost a lot per person for a more flexible system, or it’s going to cost a lot in time to move people by public transit to these areas.”
The coverage of the suburbanization of poverty in the last few years suggests other measures, such as rethinking the balance of social support programs between cities and suburbs, merit consideration. Adding that the soaring cost of living in cities poses a challenge for moderate-income earners as well, Stoll urges new thinking in regional terms. “In order for everybody to move ahead economically, everybody has to have a place and a role in that economy and be able to locate housing choices near where they work and limit the cost on families. If we did that, I think we’d be on our way to developing more economically healthy cities and metropolitan areas.”
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