Earlier this week, I wrote about the incomes of commuters, looking at the incomes of people who commute to the central business districts of six American cities by distance from the center. Contrary to the story of drive-until-you-qualify, in which incomes drop as one moves farther out, in fact incomes tend to rise with commute distance. I was asked by many people in comments and on Twitter, what about the general public, and not just commuters?
The answer is that the answer changes but not by much. The model remains that of the poverty donut, in which people within a certain distance from city center, between 5 and 20 km depending on city size, are poorer than people in both the innermost radius and people who live in the suburbs farther out.
As before, we use data from OnTheMap, which slices jobs by income brackets, of which the highest is $40,000 or more per year in wages. This does not take unemployment or non-wage income into account, but usually these amplify existing inequalities in wages.
Here’s the same table as in the last post, with counts of employed residents and the share of $40,000+ workers within the same radii from the same point as before, without the restriction that people work in the CBD:
|City||New York||Los Angeles||Chicago||Washington||San Francisco||Boston|
|Point||Grand Central||7th/Metro Center||Madison/State||Farragut||Market/2nd||DTX|
A few valuable footnotes to the table above:
- In Boston, the innermost 3 km radius, comprising such neighborhoods as Back Bay, there are 98,691 residents of whom 66.4% earn at least $40,000 a year, but the 5 km level of granularity doesn’t quite see that because the city is smaller than the others. So the swoosh model seen in New York and Washington still holds.
- The 50-60 km and 60-70 km annuli around Washington include most of Baltimore, so they are poor once we strip the requirement that people work in the District. They do not show suburban poverty, but urban poverty in a city that, far from getting the transportation investment Massachusetts is putting into the Gateway Cities, had a subway line canceled by a popular moderate Republican governor for what’s almost certainly racist reasons.
- The situation in the Bay Area is the reverse of that of Washington. The 40-50 km and 50-60km annuli are wealthy because they happen to include wealthy communities on the Peninsula whose suburban status is awkward, having been both wealthy commuter suburbs of San Francisco and more recently Silicon Valley edge cities with many tech jobs.
What’s going on in Los Angeles?
All other cities on the table have poverty donuts, poorer than both the city core and the suburbs. But in Los Angeles, the $40,000+ share grows nearly monotonically as distance from the CBD increases. The 5 km radius from the center, which in New York comprises the Upper East and West Sides and in Chicago comprises the North Side and the gentrifying parts of the Near South Side, is the poorest group in Los Angeles. It consists of neighborhoods that are not particularly wealthy, like Boyle Heights, Filipinotown, and Koreatown.
The broader question is, how come those neighborhoods have not gentrified the way their counterparts in other American cities did?
The answer to this question has to be that Los Angeles is very weak-centered. The other five cities all have strong CBDs, which means the middle class is willing to pay extra to live near their centers. In Los Angeles, employment in the CBD is weaker, so fewer people of means try to concentrate there.
Place-based policy for commuters
Despite the fact that people who live 50 km from city center are noticeably poorer than people who live 50 km and work at city center, there’s an impulse to focus on rush-hour commuter transportation at this range. This can include highway widening, or commuter rail that is so peak-focused it’s essentially a highway widening, interfacing with the suburban road and parking network but not with any urban public transportation.
Even though the people such policy helps are better-off than most, governments still sell it as a social justice measure that would promote equity. The error here is that while people in (say) New Bedford are poorer than average, the local notables who decide what the New Bedford agenda is are richer than average, and they want to be able to say that they steered spending to the area in order to feel more important.
It’s an awkward situation in which money is wasted on grounds of both efficiency and equality. The local notables are on the wealthy side, like the CBD-bound commuters, but they’re a distinct group with mostly local ties, so they understand the needs of regional rail even worse than 9-to-5 commuters as as class do. So the money is wasted, and it’s wasted in a way that increases inequality rather than decreasing it.
Job access for the working class
The best place for job access for the working class remains city center. In Los Angeles, this is direct from the data: for all the talk about drive-until-you-qualify exurbs in the Inland Empire, incomes there remain higher than in East LA or South Central. But this is true even in the other cities, for two distinct reasons.
In some cities, like Chicago, there is notable directionality – that is, there is a favored quarter (the North Side) and an ill-favored one (the South Side). Job suburbanization generally goes in the direction of the favored quarter because that is where corporate management lives. In Washington, Amazon decided to build HQ2 in the direction of the favored quarter, in Virginia, and offered the ill-favored quarter, the lower middle-class Prince George’s County, a lower-end warehousing job center. This situation seems universal or nearly so: in Paris most job suburbanization goes to the western favored quarter, in Tel Aviv it goes to the northern favored quarter, and so on.
But not all cities have much directionality. New York doesn’t – go in any direction outside the Manhattan core and you’ll find poverty, whether it’s in Harlem, Corona, Bed-Stuy, Jersey City, or Bergen Hill, and go further and you’ll find reasonable levels of comfort.
That said, in New York, off-center jobs are awfully inaccessible. Creating more jobs in Harlem would be great for working-class black and Hispanic job seekers in the area, but would not be very accessible from Brooklyn or Hudson County. Even access from the Bronx may be compromised by East Side vs. West Side divisions: how much access does the South Bronx get to Uptown Manhattan’s biggest job center, Columbia?
What’s more, plans for decentralizing jobs in the New York region don’t focus on Harlem or Jersey City, just as plans in Washington go to Fairfax County and not PG County. The PennDesign plan for high-speed rail, dubbed North Atlantic Rail, calls for a job center on Long Island called Nassau Center, in a homogeneously comfortable part of the region.
So in all cases, keeping jobs as concentrated in city center as possible, and allowing the CBD to organically expand into nearby areas, ensures the best job access for everyone, but this is disproportionately helpful for lower-income workers. There just isn’t enough suburban poverty writ large to justify any deurbanization of job geography on equity grounds.