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Notes from the Field

Trouble finding workers? The answer may be transit.

Perspectives from Southwest Ohio

In the latest entry in their Notes from the Field blog, the Community Development Department discusses job access—in this case, how people get to work. The problem is a persistent one for low-income workers across the country and was highlighted during a recent trip to Dayton, Ohio.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Transportation is one of the hardest things to find for our residents.” I heard this from a worker at a job assistance center in a West Dayton public housing facility, DeSoto Bass Courts, that is available to about 500 low-income individuals and families. She went on to say that compared to other barriers to employment for residents—lacking a driver’s license, failing a drug test, or having a criminal background—transit is the hardest to address. “The other stuff is easier,” she told us. Whether it was catching a bus at 4 am to get to a job at 6 am, navigating city and county bus lines that operate on different schedules, or routing childcare into the mix, transit was often an obstacle rather than an onramp.

The job assistance center is one of 24 job sites in the country run through the Jobs Plus Initiative program. Opened in 2017, the Dayton site has serviced more than 80 residents of DeSoto Bass Courts and Hilltop Homes, a complex nearby. Roughly half of those participating are now employed full or part time.

In February, President Mester and I visited Dayton and spoke with public housing residents, community advocates, and civic leaders. Residents’ ability to get to work, often referred to as job access, was not just a challenge for residents of this public housing facility—the theme was repeated throughout West Dayton and in Cincinnati by employers, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropic leaders, too. Particularly as the labor market tightens, employers are having a hard time finding workers. But some civic leaders cautioned that too much focus on things such as apprenticeships, workforce development, or tuition assistance programs may be misplaced; that is, these things may not be solutions if the problem is transit or childcare. Essentially, low-wage workers (still) appear to be stuck on the lower rungs of the income ladder despite a stronger economy and efforts to change employer practices and even pay.

The transit challenge is not unique to Dayton and Cincinnati. We have seen it often throughout our District, which comprises all of Ohio, western Pennsylvania, eastern Kentucky, and the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Our Community Development Department began seeking to better understand the barriers people face getting to work. In our “Long Ride to Work” analysis of commuting patterns in the Northeast Ohio region, we found that low-skilled and low-paying jobs were the hardest for residents to reach. In our research on transit in Allegheny County (forthcoming in 2018), we found that almost 20 percent of transit riders in Pittsburgh have commutes of at least 60 minutes. They are currently looking for creative solutions to this problem that is not only a tax on time but potentially a tax on economic productivity.

Going forward, we—and other Federal Reserve Banks across the country—are committed to better understanding the challenges and available solutions for connecting people and jobs. Job access is an important, though often-overlooked, conversation across the community and economic development field, and one that disproportionately affects low-income workers.