Op-Ed

When jobs in Southern California move farther away from homes

Nearby jobs are declining faster in many low-income communities than in the rest of the region

Southern Californians are famous for fighting some of the worst gridlock in the United States. They know as well as anyone the benefits of living close to work. But that's becoming an increasingly difficult trick to pull off as the distance grows between where people live and where jobs are available.

That's the upshot of a new analysis the Brookings Institution conducted of employment trends in the nation's largest metropolitan areas. In Los Angeles and Orange counties, the typical resident lived within nine miles of 600,000 jobs in 2012, down 7% from 640,000 jobs in 2000. That decline was very similar to the average trend for all metro areas over the same period.

More time on the road is not the only downside to the widening geographical gap between people and jobs: There are tangible social and economic repercussions to this discrepancy.

For starters, people who live closer to jobs are more likely to work and less likely to receive welfare. This is particularly true for lower-income, lower-skill workers, who tend to have fewer options for where to live, and less ability to buy and maintain a car. Living near jobs isn't the most important factor for getting and keeping employment, but it definitely matters for many individuals who need jobs the most.

Residents in areas near more jobs also enjoy better access to services such as grocery stores, child-care centers and healthcare providers, which tend to congregate near other jobs. Nearby jobs contribute to local public services — schools, streets, safety — through tax dollars from businesses. In California, local jobs are especially crucial for funding local services, because under Proposition 13, municipalities rely heavily on business tax revenue to compensate for property tax limitations.

So it's worrisome that nearby jobs are declining faster in many low-income communities than in the rest of the region. Low-income neighborhoods — where at least 1 in 5 individuals lives below the poverty line — experienced larger declines in nearby jobs from 2000 to 2012 than other areas.

Low-income urban communities are actually better off, in terms of proximity to jobs, than their farther-flung suburban counterparts. For instance, residents of most South Los Angeles neighborhoods count at least 950,000 nearby jobs within nine miles. Compare that to Palmdale, in north Los Angeles County, where only about 50,000 jobs lie within a similar distance (and where typical commutes are thus much longer).

Smaller suburban cities in eastern Los Angeles County are in the most trouble. In poor, predominantly Latino cities such as Bell, Compton, Downey, Lynwood and Vernon, nearby jobs fell as much as 15% over the 12-year period. Not coincidentally, several of those cities also ranked high on a list of the state's most financially distressed municipalities for 2013.

At the same time, these smaller suburban areas are housing an increasing share of the region's poor population. In 2013, about 1 million people below the poverty line lived in the cities of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana combined, versus 1.2 million in the remainder of Los Angeles and Orange counties. As poverty in Southern California suburbanizes, jobs for the suburban poor may be growing farther out of reach.

Some regions around the country are taking steps to reduce the growing distance between people and jobs, or at least to mitigate the trend's effects on vulnerable populations. In greater Seattle, a local transit agency is discounting public transit fares based on income to help ease growing commuting cost burdens for low-income suburban residents. In metropolitan Denver, a public-private partnership is working to increase affordable housing options along its expanding light-rail line. And some large suburban counties, such as Prince George's in Maryland, are trying to target their often-fragmented investments in high-need communities more strategically in order to increase local economic opportunities.

Adopting these sorts of approaches in Southern California might not make its notorious traffic much better in the near term. But over the long term, they could ensure that more of the region's residents benefit from access to jobs and the stronger communities that can result.

Alan Berube is senior fellow and deputy director with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and co-author of "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America."

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