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Spatial Mismatch — Sprawl & Poor Transit Further Unemployment

Social and economic equality and inequality have many root causes. A paper published in the mid-196os examined the “spatial-mismatch hypothesis.” John Kain, an economist at Harvard University, found a significant connection between unemployment rates (especially in minorities) to this theory of the geography of unemployment.

The description “spatial mismatch” finds higher low-income community unemployment due to isolation from employment centers. The absence of reliable mass transit or other transportation opportunities, in particular, causes this isolation. Thus, insurmountable obstacles in applying or maintaining work plague low-income community members. The isolation is particularly harmful to minorities, women, and the elderly.

A new study the US Census Bureau has released supports (again) the truth in this theory. From the study, Job Displacement and the Duration of Joblessness: The Role of Spatial Mismatch: “Our results support the spatial mismatch hypothesis. We find that better job accessibility significantly decreases the duration of joblessness among lower-paid displaced workers. This result is strongest for non-Hispanic blacks, females, and older workers.”

Last Stop transit

Last Stop

Fredrik Andersson of the Office of the Comptroller as well as Henry Pollakowski of Harvard University and Census Bureau members discuss the flaws or challenges in our urban system that are resulting in this spatial mismatch and worsening inequality. Sprawl is one significant problem here, as well as poor transit funding and connections.

Streetsblog points out that this controlled study used precise methods and that the study looked at a sample of 247,000 lower-income workers in nine US metros in the Great Lakes region of the Midwest. It only considered and counted low-income workers who have a consistent work background. Continuing, they note: “The authors also limited the study to people who had been laid off as part of a mass downsizing following the recession, not people who parted with their employer voluntarily or through any fault of their own.”

The Economist mentions other papers on the topic. One suggests that workers may be in the wrong place. The think-tank at the Brookings Institution finds “that poverty in America has become more concentrated over the past decade. During the 2000s, the number of neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40% or more climbed by three-quarters.” Times have changed since the 1960s and Kain’s research. Now, along with other issues caused by sprawl, poverty is growing more quickly in the suburbs as opposed to the inner cities.


Policy changes to address unemployment are not easy issues. However, improvements, extensive and comprehensive improvements, in mass transportation is one key issue that needs attention. The Economist continues, emphasizing, “the typical American city dweller can reach just 30% of jobs in their city within 90 minutes on public transport. That is a recipe for unemployment.”

The trend of using mass transit is stable and growing, as in 5 of the last 8 quarters, ridership on US public transportation improved, and in the second quarter according to APTA, it actually “outpaced urban vehicle miles traveled (VMT) which grew at 0.97 percent for this quarter.” Record ridership increased on the expanded and new lines opened in the past five years, proving that the investments are paying off. With better options, people will choose public transportation.

The problem is not that workers are not willing to use mass transit. The need and desire for mass transit are great. The problem remains that most areas of the country, in particular suburbs, remain isolated from transit opportunities, and that transit option remain sparse and inconvenient. If there is a singular issue that needs improvement for unemployment, it may well be creating affordable, reliable transit systems.

Related Articles:

Could Autonomous Cars Increase Pollution and Sprawl

The Reality of Wealth Inequality in the US is Staggering

What Makes Housing Really Green? Location, Location, Location…

Save Money This Month ($839 ) With Mass Transit

Image Credit: Tarek MRAD (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Written By

Cynthia Shahan started writing after previously doing research and publishing work on natural birth practices. (Several unrelated publications) She is a licensed health care provider. She studied and practiced both Waldorf education, and Montessori education, mother of four unconditionally loving spirits, teachers, and environmentally conscious beings born with spiritual insights and ethics beyond this world. (She was able to advance more in this way led by her children.)


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