Job Opportunity and Sprawl

The Geography of Job Opportunity

Sprawl and its effects on the spatial distribution of jobs have long been bad news for low-income workers in cities, especially for people of color. A “spatial mismatch” has developed between unemployed and underemployed urban workers and job creation in newly developing suburbs. For example, a 1997 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report found that 87 percent of the new jobs being created in the lower-paying and lower-skilled service sector and the retail sector were located in the suburbs.

Workers living in inner cities and inner-ring suburbs often cannot access those new jobs because they do not own cars and cannot reach the jobs via public transportation. Urban residents often cannot find out about job openings in the suburbs because recruitment often happens through window signs and word of mouth, channels that are largely closed off to urban residents.

The growth of employment at the fringes is another way sprawl makes people auto-dependent. Since mass transit systems were originally designed to reach jobs in the urban core from homes either in the core or in suburban bedroom communities, job growth at the fringe undermines that system and the enormous historical public investments in transit. As a result, urban workers are denied access to many job opportunities.

Job Quality

As the jobs thin out geographically, the quality of many often diminishes. Without a geographically dense labor market and the higher levels of unionization found in the urban core, suburban employers seek to pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits. At the same time, the movement of jobs to the suburbs can undermine the bargaining ability of urban workers, thus putting downward pressure on wages and benefits in cities as well. So in addition to creating transportation and housing barriers, by reducing unionization, sprawl perpetuates the cycle of poverty found in most American cities.

Economic development subsidies, as Good Jobs First has documented, are part and parcel of this job-thinning problem. Instead of bringing jobs to areas most hurt by plant closings or to areas served  by public transportation, we have found that they favor affluent, outlying, auto-dependent areas. Even programs originally intended for urban revitalization, such as enterprise zones and tax increment financing, have strayed. See the Subsidies and Sprawl section of the website for more details.