More jobs are close at hand in cities.  And on average the poor live closer to jobs than the non-poor.

One of the most enduring explanations for urban poverty is the “spatial mismatch hypothesis” promulgated by John Kain in the 1960s.  Briefly, the hypothesis holds that as jobs have increasingly suburbanized, job opportunities are moving further and further away from the inner city neighborhoods that house most of the poor. In theory, the fact that jobs are becoming more remote may make them more difficult to get, especially for the unemployed. How important is proximity to getting and keeping a job?

A new Brookings Institution report from Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes, The Growing Distance Between People and Jobs  sheds some light on this old question.  Their data show that between 2000 and 2012, jobs generally decentralized in U.S. metropolitan areas, with the result that on average, people live further from jobs than they did a decade ago.  Put another way:  there are fewer jobs within the average commute distance of the typical metropolitan resident.

While job access has diminished for most Americans, the report notes that the declines in job access have been somewhat greater for the poor and for racial and ethnic minorities than for non-poor and white metropolitan residents.  This, in the report’s view, has exacerbated the spatial mismatch between the poor and jobs.

The Kneebone/Holmes findings emphasize the change in job access over time.  As jobs decentralized, the average American had about 7 percent fewer jobs within a typical commuting radius in 2012 than in 2000.  But its illuminating to look at the level of job access.  Certain patterns emerge:

People who live in large metropolitan areas have access to many, many more jobs, than do residents of smaller metropolitan areas.  The typical New Yorker is has just shy of a million  jobs within commuting distance; the typical Memphian, only 150,000.  This is what economists are talking about when they describe “thick” urban labor markets.

Dig deeper, and it turns out that within metropolitan areas, cities have much better job access than suburbs.  We’ve taken the Brookings data for 2012 and computed the relative job accessibility of cities compared to their to suburbs for each of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas.  For example, an average city resident in Charlotte has about 320,000 jobs within typical commuting distance.  The average suburban resident in the Charlotte metro has just 70,000.  (Metro level data are shown in the table below).  This means that a Charlotte city resident has about 4.6 times as many jobs within commuting distance of her home than does her suburban counterpart.  For the typical large metro area, city residents have about 2.4 times as many jobs within commuting distances as their suburban neighbors.  This pattern of higher job accessibility in cities holds for every large metro area in the country–save one:  Las Vegas.

At first this may seem counter-intuitive, but consider:  even though jobs may have been decentralizing, central locations are often better able to access jobs in any part of the region.  Its also the case that despite decentralization, job density–the number of jobs per square mile–still tends to be noticeably higher in urban centers than on the fringe.  Its also interesting to note that the difference in job accessibility between cities and suburbs (+140 percent) dwarfs the average decline in job accessibility (-7%) over the past decade.  While aggregate job accessibility may have decreased slightly, individuals have wide opportunity to influence their access to jobs in every metropolitan area based on whether they choose to live in cities or suburbs.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, on average the poor and ethnic minorities generally are closer to jobs than their white and non-poor counterparts.  We can do the same computation to compare relative job accessibility within each metro area for poor and non-poor populations, and to compare job accessibility for blacks and whites.  Despite job decentralization, and the fact that poorer neighborhoods often themselves support fewer local businesses and jobs, the poor residents of the typical large metropolitan area have about 20 percent more jobs within typical commuting distance than do their non-poor counterparts.  The black residents of large U.S. metropolitan areas are have on average about 50 percent more jobs within typical commuting distance than their white counterparts in the same metropolitan area.  Again, this pattern holds for virtually all large metropolitan areas.  Data showing relative job accessibility for poor and non-poor persons and black and white persons by metropolitan area are shown in the two right hand columns of the table above.

Of course, a pure distance-based measure of job accessibility may not fully reflect the transportation accessibility to particular jobs–especially for poor persons who are disproportionately more likely to not have access to automobiles for commute trips.  But the data show that city residents have strikingly better access to a large number of jobs, and other forms of transportation–transit, cycling and walking–generally work better in cities.  The density and proximity of jobs in cities, plus the availability of transit is one reason why poor persons disproportionately concentrate in cities, according to research by Ed Glaeser and his colleagues.

The very much higher level of physical job accessibility in cities, and the relative proximity that poor people and black Americans enjoy to employment opportunities is a signal that physical employment mismatch is at best only a partial explanation for persistent urban poverty.  Other important barriers, particularly a lack of education, concentrated poverty, and continued discrimination are also important factors.

We’re deeply appreciative of our friends at Brookings undertaking this analysis, and making their methodology and findings accessible and transparent.  The metro-by-metro data they present add a new dimension to our understanding of urban land use and evolving labor markets.  While we strongly encourage everyone to explore this data, we offer an observation. In measuring job accessibility, Kneebone and Holmes chose to use separate and locally customized estimates of local commute distance.  For example, the average intra-metropolitan commute (according to data from the LEHD program) in Houston is 12.2 miles, while in New Orleans it is 6.2 miles.  This means that a big part of the difference in measured job accessibility between these two metropolitan areas reflects the fact the typical commute shed for Houston cover a far larger area than for New Orleans.  While this may be an accurate reflection of typical commuting behavior in each cities, it makes direct comparisons between different metropolitan areas problematic.