The Poor and Transportation: A Comment of Marlene Kim's 'The Working Poor: Lousy Jobs of Lousy Workers?'

By Lambert, Thomas E. | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1998 | Go to article overview

The Poor and Transportation: A Comment of Marlene Kim's 'The Working Poor: Lousy Jobs of Lousy Workers?'


Lambert, Thomas E., Journal of Economic Issues


Marlene Kim's excellent article on the inability of most working poor to lift themselves out of poverty by working more hours was an informative and important contribution to our understanding of the difficulties and frustrations faced by a large segment of our labor force. I would add, however, one more limitation that explains why so many of the working poor are unable to rise above a poverty threshold: transportation problems. Much has been written about the spatial mismatch between available jobs and job seekers who are at or below some definition of poverty. Because of "welfare reform," more attention now is being focused not just on the jobs-jobless spatial mismatch, but also on the difficulties faced by the underemployed in reaching distant work destinations. The purpose of this note is to share some recent findings from research either sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) or from research on data collected by the DOT. These findings shed additional light on why the working poor probably do not work more hours than they currently do.

Using the 1995 DOT's Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey (NPTS), Elaine Murakami and Jennifer Young [1997] have analyzed daily travel of persons with low income. Because the NPTS does not ask detailed questions about a household's sources of income or its assets (for example, earnings versus transfer payments and owning one's car versus car pooling or borrowing a relative's car) and because household income is reported in $5,000 increments, Murakami and Young were forced to classify households into groups shown in Table 1. The data set included 42,633 households.

For the 4,721 households falling into one of the low-income categories listed in Table 1, it was estimated that 26 percent did not have access to an automobile. For the other households surveyed, only 4 percent did not have access to a car. With regard to car ownership, the average age of a car owned by a low-income household was approximately 11 years. This is three years higher than the average age of vehicles owned by households above the low-income categories. Like other studies, the authors found that most low-income households surveyed lived in inner-city neighborhoods (43.7 percent). Another 25.1 percent lived in rural neighborhood areas. These findings support other findings of geographical distance between concentrations of poverty and sites of employment growth - suburban neighborhood areas of metropolitan areas.

Table 1. Definition of "Low Income" Households for 1995 NPTS

Number of Persons in Household           Household Income
(Regardless of Age)

1-2 persons                               Under $10,000
3-4 persons                               Under $20,000
5+ persons                                Under $25,000

Source: Murakami and Young [1997, 3].

On February 24, 1998, the DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics released a report titled "Welfare Reform and Access to Jobs in Boston" by Annalynn Lacombe. The study was an attempt to assess the transportation needs of both working and non-working welfare recipients in the Boston metropolitan area. Boston was selected as a case study site because of its large and comprehensive transit system, which includes a mixture of rail and bus lines. …

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