Trouble on the Horizon: Texas keeps paying billions for more highway expansion in the face of urbanization and automation. Joseph Dalcour

Urbanism

How American Cities Keep Job Seekers Away From Jobs

A new study digs into so-called "spatial mismatch," an under-discussed symptom of sprawl that contributes to cycles of poverty

It’s one of the major story lines as Dallas confronts its ongoing struggles with poverty: not only is Dallas’ poverty rate high, but when you look at income inequality by neighborhood, the city concentrates that poverty in specific areas. That disparity—between areas of opportunity and areas of blight—perpetuates a deepening of the divide, creating geographical obstacles for job seekers looking for available jobs.

This is not a Dallas problem. It’s a problem endemic to the way American cities chose to develop through the 20th century, and the hidden costs of those land use and transportation decisions are starting to come into focus.

Case in point: this study by the Urban Institute, which looks at what it calls “spatial mismatch” between job seekers and job providers. Focusing on two very different American cities—San Francisco and Columbus—the study found that they share a similar problem. Employers in successful areas of town have difficulty filling hourly and low-wage jobs. And job seekers looking for these kinds of jobs often live so far from the available positions that the cost of transportation becomes an obstacle for filling them.

The study uses data culled from Snag, an hourly job search engine.

Snag data give us a unique view of the labor force because they reflect hourly, often minimum-wage jobs, which can’t always be found in traditional jobs data. The jobs are predominantly full time, and most are restaurant, retail, and customer service positions. The applicants in the system generally have only a high school diploma and are evenly split by gender. Unlike traditional job datasets, these data include all job postings and all applicants (rather than only matched jobs) and are available at the zip code level.

A disclaimer: Most of the Snag jobs are in the service industry, and job seekers may not be willing to commute longer distances for jobs they don’t believe will provide much upward mobility. Nonetheless, the study does highlight a border takeaway that we have discussed before in Dallas. It is not enough to look at workforce and job availability to understand the story of urban poverty. Spatial incongruities play a significant role.

The study compares this spatial mismatch across 16 metropolitan statistical areas, comparing zip codes where Snag job postings exceed job seekers (which is bad for employers), and where Snag job seekers far exceed job postings (bad for employees). Some cities, like Boston and San Francisco, have a ton of jobs that are inaccessible to job seekers, while other cities, like Atlanta and Miami, have a ton of job seekers and limited access to available positions. Unsurprisingly, the Dallas MSA has a healthy does of both, with 13 percent of zip codes having too many jobs and too few applicants, while 23 percent have too many applicants and two few jobs.

So what’s to be done? The researchers spoke to officials in San Francisco and Columbus and found some familiar ideas that cities are already attempting to implicate. Columbus has created a community land trust with land-banked lots, and it hopes to develop affordable housing along transit corridors.

The city government is also beginning a top-to-bottom review of its zoning code to refocus development in growth corridors, which would contribute to a modestly dense city footprint and move away from sprawl-based patterns.

They are also investing in public transportation options that directly address the issue of connecting jobs to the existing workforce. Other efforts include addressing specific industries, such as creating programs within the hotel business that allows entry-level hourly workers to train and move up the corporate ladder, thus providing both potential mobility and an incentive to seek low-paying hourly jobs.

What this all represents is a day of reckoning. The old development models are broken. As with Columbus’ proposal of revisiting and rewriting their entire zoning code, restoring healthy, functioning, equitable urban communities is going to require a systematic rewriting of the rules.

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