Prosperity Watch Issue 47, No. 3: Proximity to employment in North Carolina's metro areas

March 31, 2015

The discussion of urban versus rural economic growth in North Carolina often overlooks a vitally important nuance: people in many urban neighborhoods are commuting farther to work than in 2000. Even more distressingly, a recent report from the Brookings Institution shows that residents of impoverished neighborhoods are particularly likely to have seen their jobs recede into the distance. The results of this analysis underscore the importance of targeting economic policy and infrastructure investments to address the growing gulf between where people live and where they work.   

Three of the five North Carolina metro areas studied in the report have seen their job proximity levels decline. Job proximity was constructed from economic and demographic variables at the census tract level to capture how many jobs fall within the typical commute distance of that metro area from the center point (i.e., centroid) of each census tract. Economists have known for a long time that lower proximity to employment opportunities undermines localities’ fiscal health, increases the length of joblessness and job searches, and makes it more likely that residents will disconnect from the labor force.

It turns out that even within areas with strong overall job growth, residents of specific neighborhoods have to travel a longer distance to get to work. Nationally, the analysis of job proximity finds that from 2000 to 2012 the proximity of residents to jobs decreased by 7 percent on average. Residents of high poverty neighborhoods and majority neighborhoods of color were particularly likely to experience a growing distance from employment opportunities during the 12 years covered by the report. These findings were driven by a confluence of factors: in some areas the overall decline in employment opportunities was a factor, in other areas the suburbanization of the population and employment played a role. The elevated decline in job proximity for struggling neighborhoods shows the importance in particular of considering the confluence of economic, demographic and spatial characteristics in employment opportunities.

Raleigh is a case study in how total growth does not always lead to greater employment opportunity for every neighborhood. Raleigh is one of 29 metro areas nationally that saw an increase in job proximity for residents, so commute distances to are down for the metro area overall. However, at the same time that Raleigh has been growing, job proximity actually declined by 18 percent for high-poverty neighborhoods. Job proximity also declined for residents in majority neighborhoods of color in the cities of the Raleigh metro area. For majority neighborhoods of color in suburbs, however, job proximity increased exponentially over the 2000 to 2012.

The findings for North Carolina point to the need for a more thorough assessment of place and economic outcomes that looks simultaneously at regional and neighborhood dynamics. The shifting location of people and jobs in the state signal a need for more targeted economic development efforts and alignment of housing, transportation and workforce decisions with employment opportunities.


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