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​Our Jobs Are Drifting Further and Further Away

Thanks to the slummification of the suburbs, agonizing commutes, automation, and outsourcing, jobs are drifting further away in every sense.

by Brian Merchant
Mar 26 2015, 1:00pm

Work. Image: ​Steve Purkiss, ​Flickr

Our jobs are drifting further away from us, both metaphorically and geographically. In the US, jobs are increasingly ​outsourced and ​automated, of course, and some forms of employment Americans have relied on for decades are moving further out of reach of the middle class. But jobs are also just literally moving further away.

The Brookings Institute published a report Wednesday that found that "[b]etween 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs within the typical commute distance for residents in a major metro area fell by 7 percent." For the average American, there are now significantly fewer jobs near enough to home to make commuting a reasonable prospect.

In an era marked by the gospel of efficiency and flashy transportation startups, it seems a little strange that, for many, it's becoming harder and harder just to trek to work, or even find employment nearby. But it is, on both counts—especially for the poor. And the 7 percent decline is just the nationwide median. In some parts of the country, there are over 25 percent fewer jobs near residents in major population centers.

Take Cleveland, for instance. There are 26.5 percent fewer jobs near the average Clevelander today than there was in 2000. In places like Detroit, MI, Dayton, OH, and Sarasota, FL, the decline is nearly as bad. There are a few bright spots—in Bakersfield, CA, and parts of Texas, there are more jobs close by than there used to be. But by and large, the trend is for jobs to dry up and be further away.

Some of this is no doubt due to the economic crash, which destroyed jobs that had to be regrown elsewhere while workers stayed put. But it's also a result of what some critics have called the "slummification of the suburbs."

A previous Brookings report from 2010 explained the trend: "for the first time, a majority of all racial and ethnic groups in large metro areas live outside the city. Suburban Asians and Hispanics already had topped 50 percent in 2000, and blacks joined them by 2008, rising from 43 percent in those eight years. The suburbs now have the largest poor population in the country."

While millennials flock to cities, those they price out of the gentrifying neighborhoods have been forced to move in the opposite direction. The glut of real estate development left in the wake of the housing market collapse made the suburbs more affordable. Which would be great, but for the fact that suburbs are further from centers of employment, lack decent public transit, and result in higher energy costs. 

And they are effectively stranding their citizens.

"As poor and minority residents shifted toward suburbs in the 2000s, their proximity to jobs fell more than for non-poor and white residents," the new report explains. The number of jobs near the typical Hispanic worker declined 17 percent since 2000, and 14 percent near blacks. For whites, the number of nearby jobs only fell 6 percent. The pattern, Brookings notes, was "repeated for the typical poor (-17 percent) versus non-poor (-6 percent) resident."

Yes, jobs may be coming back (even if ​wages aren't). As the Atlantic noted last year, 2014 may have been the "best year for job creation this century." But the great bulk of them are white collar jobs in the "professional and business services" field—and they're increasingly located in city centers, as a February 2015 City Observatory report found. Meanwhile, job growth in the suburbs is stalling.

So, the number of jobs even near poorer citizens, let alone available, is shrinking. Jobs are drifting further away from impoverished neighborhoods, which, of course, need them most. 

"Overall, 61 percent of high-poverty tracts (with poverty rates above 20 percent)... experienced declines in job proximity between 2000 and 2012," Brookings explains. "A growing number of these tracts are in suburbs, where nearby jobs for the residents of these neighborhoods dropped at a much faster pace than for the typical suburban resident (17 and 16 percent, respectively, versus 7 percent)."

Residents in those areas increasingly face a time and energy-consuming journey in order to find or get to work at all. 

Just last week, a report compiled by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer showed how onerous commuting was around the country—New Yorkers, for instance, spend an average of over six hours a week just getting to and from work. It revealed that while the commuter champions were finance workers living the age-old Gatsbyian American Dream (commute to Wall Street from Long Island), the commute was generally the worst for the poor. "Lower-wage workers," the report found, "live in neighborhoods outside the city's job core, forcing them to spend more time commuting and less time with family."

The distance between workers and their jobs is troublesome for other reasons, too. If (rather, when) oil prices climb again, it will add another serious burden on the suburbanizing poor. The continued, messy ​rise of telecommuting may help buffer some of this, eventually. But a lot of e-work doable from home takes the form of precarious, freelance gigs that often don't offer benefits or health care. Regardless, extending sustainable transportation and social services, as well as securing more genuinely affordable urban housing and untangling the inequalities driving the divide, will be major projects in coming years. 

Because those jobs aren't just getting physically further away, either, clearly. They are vanishing altogether, drifting off into the ether: A combination of corporate automation and corporate outsourcing is further squeezing the middle class. If those oft-discussed ​roboticization forecasts are right, there soon may no longer be enough good jobs to reach full employment, period. But for now, it's very much worth recognizing that the rich and their robots aren't just taking the jobs—they're physically moving them out of reach.

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