The Relationship Between Transportation and Poverty
A Real- Life Example to Keep in Mind as You Read This Article
There is a woman, a Worcester resident, we will call her Clarita Ortiz, who is a recovering substance user with a diagnosis of depression. Ms Ortiz is a single mother. With her four-year-old child she walks six miles every day from Webster Square to the Methadone clinic on Lincoln Street. On their return trip to their neighborhood she and her child look for empty bottles to turn in to the local recycle center for pocket change. She has no income and lives on SNAP benefits. Ms Ortiz is an exception. Poverty is discouraging; many women in her situation, depressed and hopeless, would simply stay home. Instead, Ms Ortiz and her child walk for four hours every day regardless of the weather.
If, instead, Ms Ortiz was working 40 hours per week, and still living in Worcester County, she would need a job paying $27.56/hour ($57,300/year) to earn a living wage from which she would pay for child care and transportation, rent, food, clothing, etc. These numbers are from MIT’s Living Wage calculator.
Poverty is a Numbers Game
In a December 2018 article, US News & World Report noted that the US poverty rate dropped from 14.9 percent to 14.6 percent. In Massachusetts, the rate has dropped to 11.1%. However, Worcester’s rate is thought to be twice the state average, roughly 22%. For someone like Ms Ortiz, the official US poverty income level is $7.91/hour ($316/week before taxes). If she makes more than that, she would be above the poverty line, and could start to lose some public benefits.
In 2016, the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute based in Washington, D. C., published a report, ” Can New Transportation Technologies Improve Equity and Access to Opportunity?” noting that 20% of those in poverty in the US do not have access to a car. The number is higher, 25 to 33%, for people of color. This subset, those in poverty, whether or not they are employed, without access to a car, is dependent on public transportation for most of their daily activities. In Worcester, by my estimate, the size of this subset is about 9,000 people, including several hundred homeless persons.
City planners and others who are promoting economic opportunity and social equity often miss the fact that neighborhoods housing these people are also the areas that are either underserved by public transportation or not served at all. This situation forces the rider to walk a substantial distance to get to a bus stop, or alternately, to walk the entire distance of each necessary trip. One’s choice is to stay at home and miss a potential life-changing opportunity, thereby limiting their upward economic mobility or to walk a long way to a destination, possibly compromising their health and safety. The truth is that health care services, employment, and education are often out of reach for low-income families. One recent study in Cleveland showed that extending bus service into these unserved areas has a positive impact on the lives of low-income families and on poverty in general.
Cleveland State University 2019 Study
The following data is from a 2019 Study by Cleveland State University of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA).
In 2009, GCRTA expanded its fixed route services to areas not previously served. Ten years later, a 2019 study found a positive impact on workers in those areas. For previously unserved areas that gained transit access in 2009, by 2019:
o Employment increased by 3.1%
o Poverty decreased by 12.9%
o Property values increased by 3.5% ($2.3 billion)
Transit access is not the only factor at play here, but the numbers show a strong correlation between public transportation and poverty. Access to the regional transit authority clearly impacts employment. Also, for a low-income person, riding the GCRTA is much cheaper than commuting by car.
o Commuters collectively paid $45.4 M (2017) in fares to GCRTA
o If GCRTA passengers traveled those miles by car, it would have cost them $97.4 M
o Direct annual savings for GCRTA passengers is $51.9 M, or a 54% savings
One conclusion of the study was that that the GCRTA connects a low-income population to entry level jobs.
Social and Economic Upward Mobility
People who write about upward economic mobility often think in the context of the Horatio Alger meme, i.e., the rise from childhood poverty to adult wealth. Dr. Raj Chetty, the William A. Ackman Professor of Economics at Harvard University, has studied this model extensively. As Director of the Opportunity Insights project, which tries to map childhood roots to social mobility, Professor Chetty has shown that there are many factors that inhibit upward mobility, including the income levels of a child’s parents and the neighborhood in which a child grows up.
These factors mirror the real estate idiom, “location, location, location.” Dr. Chetty’s research shows that if parents move to a better neighborhood, it can be a significant advantage to their child’s development and subsequent upward mobility as an adult. The good schools found in better neighborhoods are a part of that advantage.
The probability that a child born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income scale will move to the top fifth as an adult, is small, 7.5% in the US. Interestingly, in Canada that probability is 13.5%!
Linking Upward Mobility to Transportation
Another Harvard professor, Dr. Mary Beth Kanter, has published a book that also addresses transportation. The title is Move: How to Rebuild and Reinvent America’s Infrastructure. She laments, in an article published in the Boston Globe in 2015, ” Through better transportation, American cities can provide opportunities for millions to escape poverty. Yet infrastructure improvement wanes, with Washington unable to do anything despite bipartisan support.” She further states:
“Public transit can be a ride out of poverty. The cities identified by Raj Chetty, an economics professor at Harvard University, as having the highest chances for a person moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of income across generations are the cities ranked as having the best public transportation, as my research found. Five of the top ten cities for physical mobility — New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Seattle — are also in the top ten for social mobility. Of course many other factors are at play, but good public transportation is among them.” Furthermore, “In a Harvard Business School survey of business leaders, the top action item for improving America’s infrastructure is more and better public transportation.”
Transportation matters! The public health care community in Greater Worcester stresses the importance of “social determinants” in effecting a person’s mental and physical health. This includes employment, a healthy diet and access to health care providers. This is especially true for those living in poverty, whose life expectancy is ten years less than that of the wealthy. The lives of those in poverty are greatly frustrated by public transportation that is inconvenient, poorly managed, unreliable or nonexistent. Opportunities are missed, and hours every day are wasted. Classes are missed, job attendance is affected; educators and employers perceive those who must depend on such public transportation as unreliable and unmotivated. Inclement weather becomes an immediate crisis. The possibilities for upward mobility become remote. Instead, their daily goal becomes survival and the onset of depression is not uncommon.
Clearly, good, reliable, affordable transportation is an extremely important basic service needed by this under-served population. It has the potential to positively influence the life of anyone living in poverty.