05/01/2013 06:49 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2013


Do you know how hard it is to get out of a bad neighborhood? I don't mean to permanently achieve prosperity; I mean literally to travel from your home in a low-income section to your job, your doctor's office, or even shopping.

The Welfare to Work Partnership found that the most common barrier to employment for people on public assistance is transportation. A study done in greater Boston found that only 32 percent of entry-level jobs in the metro area were located within walking distance of public transportation. Case studies in Cleveland and Atlanta revealed similar patterns. Most welfare recipients rely on public transportation because of the high cost of buying and maintaining a car. As businesses move out of city centers, jobs are increasingly going where the workers who need them most cannot access them. For rural families living in poverty, the challenge can be even greater.

Low-wage workers are less likely to have nine-to-five jobs. So even if public transportation serves the area where the jobs are, trains and buses may not run late enough to accommodate their schedules. Most low-income workers are women, who may be especially concerned about safety, particularly if systems aren't well-maintained, well-lit and adequately policed.

While white-collar workers can sometimes negotiate work-from-home and flex-time arrangements with their bosses, low-wage work is more commonly hands-on and demands that employees be physically present. (And, of course, telecommuting requires a telephone, computer and reliable Internet connection, often covered by workers themselves.)

When we “reformed” the welfare system, we put a time limit on benefits and pledged to give people the supports they need to find and keep jobs. There are indeed some job training programs, child care subsidies and so forth. But what if you literally cannot get to work from where you live? If we were serious about getting people into sustainable jobs, we’d be redesigning entire communities so that transportation isn’t a barrier to work, not to mention a barrier in simple activities of daily life.

For example, can you imagine navigating an unfriendly transportation system with a potty-training child? Moms lucky enough to have cars often keep the heat up in the winter to avoid having to struggle with a snowsuit. So when the urge comes, we can pull the potty chair out of the trunk and quickly get our little one on the seat. That’s just not possible if you need to take two buses with your kid to get to the pediatrician or the market.

Many people I know who address the diaper gap by distributing diapers to low-income families encourage parents to potty train their kids reasonably early. But we are sympathetic to these logistical problems. Everything, even getting your child potty trained, is harder when you’re poor.

Former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, now the nominee for Secretary of Transportation, has a record of investing in mass transit to promote economic development. Let’s hope he has the vision -- and the clout -- to get the nation looking at transportation as an essential component of economic opportunity.