According to a study released by the Urban Institute earlier this year, cities across the U.S. are experiencing a major disparity between the number of customer service and retail industry jobs available and the number of people in those areas seeking work. This “phenomenon” is usually referred to as a spatial mismatch by modern economists.
The spatial mismatch theory was originally introduced by John F. Kain, an American empirical economist and Harvard professor, in the 1960s. His article Housing Segregation, Negro Employment and Metropolitan Decentralisation connected the lack of job opportunities in low-income, African American communities to segregation, vast transportation complications, and racial bias from Caucasian employers. William Julius Wilson (African American sociologist and Harvard professor) would expound on this hypothesis 20 years later in Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. This work explains economic restructuring following the disappearance of industrial jobs, and how this shift impacted urban unemployment. (Fun fact – Wilson’s subsequent book When Work Disappears was one of the influences behind the second season of HBO’s show The Wire.)
In recent years, it seems the theory of spatial mismatch has disintegrated into a conversation of workers who reside in urban centers simply not wanting to commute to suburban or gentrifying areas for service industry jobs. However, many men and women face barriers such as inadequate transportation options, affordable housing that is located too far from employment opportunities, and a lack of apparent career pathways in the positions for which they are applying. The current economic climate might suggest it is a job seeker’s market for those interested in service industry jobs…but that only applies if cities are investing in equitable development initiatives for the working class. This not only includes greater access to affordable housing near employment and greater transportation options. It also consists of offering workforce development programs to workers in order to mitigate skills gaps and improving public health conditions in the communities that need the most help.
For example, Ohio has been a forerunner in combating the complications surrounding spatial mismatch. In 2018, the Central Ohio Transit Authority piloted a three-year free bus pass program for all workers with jobs in downtown Columbus. Also, a grant funded by the US Department of Transportation funded a circulator bus to operate between Linden (an area of low economic opportunity) and Easton (one of Ohio’s largest job centers). In states like California, workforce associations are working with businesses to develop and promote “move-up” strategies for employees.
It is very important for city agencies and associations, business, and community organizations to work through issues surrounding spatial mismatch. It not only improves life for those who are unemployed, but it also strengthens the socioeconomic infrastructure across all communities.