Poverty suburbanization and job access: A new study tests ‘spatial mismatch’

Does where you live — and what jobs you have access to — influence whether you work, and how much you earn?

The long-held “spatial mismatch” theory posits that inner city unemployment and poverty has been driven in large part by the increasing physical separation of inner city residents from job opportunities, as suburbs boomed and employers dispersed away from urban cores. As Black residents were locked out of many of America’s suburbs by segregation and housing discrimination, they were also de facto barred from living near many suburban jobs, making it harder for them to find work.

But in recent decades, poverty in the U.S. has become increasingly suburbanized, while many urban core neighborhoods are thriving, attracting residents, workers and nightlife to revitalized downtowns. A new study tests the spatial mismatch hypothesis in Charlotte, examining the effect of physical proximity and access to jobs on employment and earnings. UNC Charlotte professors Dr. Elizabeth Delmelle and Dr. Isabelle Nilsson, working with doctoral student Providence Adu, recently published their findings in the journal Social Inclusion.

[Read the study here]

The study examined where low-wage workers live, where low-wage jobs are located and how accessible via car those jobs were throughout the Charlotte region in 2010 and 2017. They also looked at employment patterns across the region for high- and low-wage workers. The researchers didn’t find a relationship between access to jobs and employment for low-wage workers. They hypothesized that’s because of Charlotte’s “polycentric” nature, as opposed to “monocentric” cities like Chicago with a more defined urban core.

“What we have is low-income workers dispersed out towards the suburbs, and we also see those jobs dispersed,” said Delmelle. “Because we have this dispersed pattern, we don’t have that mismatch.”

Although the researchers didn’t find that increased job access had an effect on employment, they did find a correlation between job accessibility and higher income for low-wage workers. They theorized that greater accessibility may lead to more job choices, which can allow people to choose higher paying jobs.

“Increasing accessibility for lower-income households could have a positive effect on neighborhood median household incomes,” the researchers wrote. Delmelle said that finding indicates policy discussions about improving economic mobility should include providing more transportation to low-wage workers, via all available means.

“If you could find a way to increase accessibility by car ownership or public transportation, that should be a way to increase wages,” Delmelle said. “Transportation can be a solution.”

Delmelle and Nilsson’s research focused on job accessibility by automobile — the way most Charlotte-region residents get to work. Delmelle acknowledged that workers without access to a car face even greater challenges.

“Without a car, the prospect of being able to navigate from those older suburban neighborhoods to these jobs would be difficult,” she said.

This research was supported by the Gambrell Faculty Fellows program. Funded by The Gambrell Foundation, the program funds research that focuses on issues related to economic mobility in the Charlotte region. Read more about the Gambrell Faculty Fellows program here.

Urban Institute intern Yoniah Johnson contributed.