Those jobs that President Barack Obama just touted Tuesday afternoon in Chattanooga, Tenn., are literally beyond reach of most of the people who might fill them.
The president visited an Amazon warehouse on the city's industrial periphery to spotlight a hopeful surge in recent hiring, part of his campaign to urge job creation as the fix for middle class decline. But the first part of landing a job is getting to the workplace. Getting to the Amazon warehouse is a formidable challenge for anyone lacking a car: The Chattanooga bus system doesn't go there.
This disconnect between available jobs and the public transit system is a problem across many major American cities. It is a problem normally discussed in isolation, as if public transportation were some sort feel-good, clean air-generating pursuit for endangered species-loving people who eat wheat grass. In reality, our shortage of public transportation represents a full-blown crisis at the center of the explanation for how millions of Americans have found themselves exiled from working life.
Nearly 40 million working-age Americans reside in parts of metropolitan areas that effectively lack public transportation, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Another Brookings study found that in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, nearly half of all jobs were more than 10 miles beyond the downtown core. Two-thirds of the jobs in these cities were beyond range of a 90-minute commute using mass transit.
For people who can afford cars, the takeaway from these numbers is straightforward: Drive to work and hope you keep earning enough to pay for gas, insurance and any unplanned maintenance. Even for people in this group, the risks can be considerable. Many people fall into joblessness when their car breaks down, depriving them of the means to get to work -- a downward spiral that can extend all the way down to homelessness.
For those who cannot afford a car, the disconnect between jobs and transit poses uniquely grave challenges. It makes for long odds that poor people will ever climb their way to a better place. According to Brookings, 1 in 10 low-income residents of major American cities relies on some form of public transportation to get to work.
All of which makes Obama's visit to the Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga hard to square with his recent job creation push. He went there to urge Congress to strike "a grand bargain for middle class jobs." My colleague Dave Jamieson has already covered the fact that many of the new Amazon jobs are temp positions, meaning they are low-paying and generally devoid of health benefits -- in short, no ticket to the middle class. Putting that aside, how will the people who need these jobs the most get to work? In Chattanooga, less than 23 percent of the metro area's working-age people have access to public transit, according to Brookings, making it the worst endowed metropolis in the United States.
The president has injected talk of economic inequality into the national conversation -- a helpful thing. "If we don't do anything, then growth will be slower than it should be," he told The New York Times last week. "Unemployment will not go down as fast as it should. Income inequality will continue to rise. That's not a future that we should accept."
All true, but inequality is not simply a question of spending power. It has physical dimensions, not least urban geography that includes an unbridgeable chasm between working opportunities and the places where people live.
Americans are inclined to take pride in economic mobility, mythologizing our society as one that is somehow free of class distinctions. In Europe, as the story goes, people are born to be servants and wind up as servants. Noble babies grow up to live luxurious, aristocratic lives. Americans like to think that we banished the monarchy in favor of the Horatio Alger story: In the land of the free, anyone can make themselves rich through hard work, smarts and staying out of trouble.
This has long been a dubious proposition. Now, a groundbreaking new study from The Equality of Opportunity Project blows that fable to pieces. The study finds enormous variation in economic mobility from city to city. In Atlanta, and in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., for example, the odds that a person born in the lowest fifth of American incomes will make it up to the highest fifth is somewhere around 5 percent, according to the study. In New York, Boston and San Francisco the odds of making that leap are about double.
Economic mobility is a complicated subject that involves race, education and levels of civic engagement. But as David Leonhardt made clear in his analysis of the study: "All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods."
In other words, places in which poor people are clustered and isolated from people of higher means are the sorts of places where poverty tends to get reinforced.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Atlanta, Charlotte and Raleigh are -- like Chattanooga -- places where the vast majority of jobs cannot be reached via public transit. New York, Boston and San Francisco represent metro areas where buses and trains tend to connect people to paychecks.
When I visited Chattanooga last year, I met a homeless woman who was squatting in a foreclosed home and working as a janitor at the Amazon warehouse. Most days, she had to walk 30 minutes to get to work from the nearest bus stop. On Sundays, she had to walk for an hour-and a half along a highway as cars sped past.
That she made it work and eventually saved enough to buy a used car was a credit to her. That she had to make that journey is a discredit to this supposed nation of opportunity.
Any honest, serious conversation about restoring economic vigor and amplifying the old middle class bargain needs to include a serious conversation about public transportation.
And the next time the president is inclined to put the spotlight on a job creator, he might pause to have a look at the bus map.
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