Reaching the areas where jobs are most plentiful has become a problem for many low-income Americans, who are now living in suburban areas. Many of these families have migrated to the suburbs because housing costs there are now lower than they are in cities, but are finding that the jobs they acquire—such as those in the service sector—have not kept up with the cost of living, as Alana Semuels wrote for The Atlantic earlier this year.
To put this in perspective, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) writes that between the years of 2000 and 2012, 6.5 million low-income Americans moved into the suburbs, and, as a result, the number of low-income Americans living in suburbs overtook the number of low-income Americans living in cities. In her article, Semuels provides the example of the suburbs of Atlanta, which are “increasingly home to the very poor, who find themselves stranded in suburbs without the kind of transit or assistance they might once have found in cities’ urban cores.” In fact, Semuels writes, 88% of Atlanta’s poor live in the suburbs. And this phenomenon is occurring throughout the United States, she notes, adding that the number of low-income families in the suburbs exceeded the number of those in cities in the 2000s.
Because of the shift in population, many low-income Americans are now further away from jobs that pay well, and from reliable public transportation. But without transportation systems that connect low-income Americans with good jobs, they “are increasingly becoming stranded without a pathway into the middle class,” Merkley writes. Even Portland (which was ranked 11th in a 2014 University of Minnesota study of the U.S. cities with the best accessibility to jobs via public transit) needs to do better, Merkley writes, because low-income Americans there still struggle to find the transportation they require.
Merkley has introduced legislation to encourage and assist local governments to find better ways to connect transportation systems to jobs, training, education, healthcare, and childcare in their regions. His initial goal for the Transportation Access and Opportunities Act is to provide funding for 10 metropolitan planning organizations with populations of more than 200,000 people, writes Rachael Rafanelli for KGW News. A pilot project, it would seek to identify and implement programs that would help low-income residents connect to opportunities via the transportation network, Merkley writes.
Semuels quotes the Brookings Institution’s Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America: “Many of these [suburban] communities lack the infrastructure, safety-net supports, and resources to address the needs of a growing poor population, which can make it that much harder for poor residents to connect to the kinds of opportunities that can help them get out of poverty in the long run,” she said.
Merkley gives as an example a woman in Northeast Portland named Cazmine Bonnot, as Rafanelli writes. A single mother of four, her daily commute to work takes her two and a half hours. Merkley accompanied her and found that she has to take three buses and a Max train to get from her house to her job. If there were public transportation closer to her home, Bonnot said, she and her children would benefit.
“The American dream is that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be able to be a part of the middle class and provide a good living for your family,” said Merkley. “But if you have no way to get to a good job – or if you have to get up in the middle of the night and use multiple modes of transportation to get there – it’s going to be much more difficult to ever reach that dream. We need to make sure our transportation systems are connecting everyone to opportunities that will help them get ahead and provide a solid financial foundation for their families.”
One county in Georgia has taken action to help solve the problem, as Semuels reports. Clayton County, just south of Atlanta’s city center, had ended its public transit program in 2010 because of an inadequate budget. But in the election of 2014, thanks to campaigning by the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) and other local groups, voters enthusiastically approved an increase in the sales tax to fund the expansion of Atlanta’s transit system, MARTA, into the county, Semuels writes. She quotes Nathaniel Smith, PSE’s founder, who said the expansion of MARTA will help lift people out of poverty by connecting them with good jobs: “If you can’t have access to something, you’re stuck.”