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As Lower-Wage Jobs Move To Charlotte's Suburbs, How Do Residents Fare Financially?

Charlotte skyline
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In the 1960s and '70s, a hypothesis took hold among researchers that African Americans in poor neighborhoods in big cities did not have easy access to low-wage jobs that were quickly moving to the suburbs. It was called spatial mismatch hypothesis. There were transportation challenges and Black families often couldn't move to the suburbs because of racial discrimination.

Fast-forward 50 years. Does the spatial mismatch hypothesis hold true in Charlotte? Elizabeth Delmelle, a professor of urban geography and transportation at UNC Charlotte, coauthored a research paper on that topic, and she joins WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry as part of our series, Rebuilding Charlotte.

Marshall Terry: Welcome.

Elizabeth Delmelle
Elizabeth Delmelle

Elizabeth Delmelle: Thank you.

Terry: First, did I get that very basic description of spatial mismatch theory correct?

Delmelle: You did. It basically said that as jobs were suburbanizing and Black households were largely confined to the center city due to racial discrimination, the hypothesis was because of this spatial distance, they were unable to access employment opportunities. And that explained higher rates of unemployment in African American neighborhoods.

Terry: So what were your findings? Is spatial mismatch a thing in Charlotte?

Delmelle: So what we found was that like many other cities across the United States, poverty rates have been increasing in more suburban locations. So in Charlotte, this would be in older, first- and middle-ring suburbs. And these areas are less accessible than center city neighborhoods. But low-wage jobs have also been moving away from the center city. So in that respect, we don't necessarily have a spatial mismatch between low-income households in the city center and low-wage jobs in the suburbs. They've both been moving outward.

Terry: Tell us what you studied — in particular, the types of neighborhoods and jobs you focused on.

Delmelle: Sure. So we looked at the relationship between changes in accessibility between low-income neighborhoods and low-wage or low-skilled jobs. So these types of jobs could be manufacturing, wholesale trade, retail, food services — something that doesn't have a high education entry requirement. And whether or not the access to these types of jobs increased, and if that increase led to a decline in unemployment rates or an increase in incomes.

And so we found that low-wage jobs have increasingly moved out toward the older suburbs. So these could be toward the Northlake Mall area, so north Charlotte or east Charlotte, northeast Charlotte, Albemarle Road — those types of neighborhoods. That's where we're seeing an increase in lower-income households. While these types of jobs have also sort of followed this decentralized pattern where they've also moved along Interstate 77. So Northlake Mall, again, is another area with a high concentration of these types of low-skilled jobs. But anywhere along highways, you'll also find them.

Terry: Fifty years ago, there was "white flight." Many white families were leaving the urban core of cities. Today, people are moving back to the heart of cities. What effect has this shift had?

Delmelle: So this has actually served to reduce that spatial mismatch or the distance between low-income households and jobs. But the problem is that low-income households, as they've moved outward to the suburbs or older suburban locations that used to be home of whites who moved out of center cities — so there's basically been a flip — the result has been that they're in increasingly inaccessible areas. So you could think about poor street connectivity and less public transportation options in those areas.

Terry: Your research paper says Charlotte has a "polycentric nature" while other cities have a "monocentric" nature. What do you mean by that?

Delmelle: Polycentric nature just means that we don't have a single core. We have a central business district, of course, but we also have jobs dispersed throughout the metropolitan area. And so that's definitely the case, especially for these low-wage or low-skilled jobs, which have moved along transportation arterials — I-77, I-85. Those are the areas where we'll see concentrations of low-skilled jobs.

Terry: How should we look at your findings through the lens of the pandemic?

Delmelle: Well, so one implication could be that low-income or low-skilled households are the ones who cannot necessarily work from home, right? So they've been continuing to commute to work and search for employment outside of their home since the pandemic took hold. And if transportation is a solution, as our study finds, for increasing their wages and ability to pay for housing in an increasingly tight housing market in Charlotte, then it's especially important that we provide some sort of transportation solution to these households.

So what the solution is, and that could be varied. it might be car ownership or car rental-types of solutions. We might need to kind of think outside of the box. But it's increasingly important for these households who need to travel outside of their home, if their jobs are dispersed in suburban locations that are not very accessible, then in order for them to increase their wages, then they need to have better transportation options.

Terry: And when it comes to transportation in Charlotte, the focus seems to be on light rail. But based on your research, do you think having a vehicle is more important than access to light rail or bus service for long-term employment?

Delmelle: So for lower-income households, again, as they move out to these less accessible older suburbs that have less connectivity, older cul-de-sacs, for example, poor sidewalk connections — the reality is in Charlotte, we need to deal with the built environment as it is. And so for these households, having a car will definitely make a bigger impact than having access to a bus or light rail. Not that light rail should not be part of the conversation. But if our goal is to decrease inequality and increase wages of low-income households so that they can afford to live in this city, then we can't forget this element of the solution.

Terry: We talked about access to employment, but you also studied how physical access to jobs affects income. What were your findings there?

Delmelle: So we found that as access to employment or job opportunities increased, then the incomes of lower-income neighborhoods, the average incomes increased. So this means that transportation is one way to increase the earnings of low-income individuals.

Terry: What would you like policymakers to take from your research, particularly now that we are still going through a pandemic that's affected how we work and live?

Delmelle: So I think the important take-home message of this is that as we go through all of these changes in our urban planning and long-range forecasts, the emphasis has largely been on public transportation and light rail investment. And that is important given the climate emergency we're in. We should definitely think about these sustainable modes of transportation.

But this is telling us that we need to look at the reality of the way that Charlotte has been built and the way that the demographics have evolved. And if low-wage and low-income individuals are in increasingly inaccessible neighborhoods, then one of the solutions might need to be increasing car ownership — at least in the short term, so that they're better able to access these jobs and improve their chances of increasing their earnings. And that will have a better impact on improving overall equity and reducing inequalities.

Terry: Thank you for joining us.

Delmelle: Thank you for having me.

Terry: Elizabeth Delmelle is a professor of Urban Geography and transportation at UNC Charlotte. She co-authored a research paper on spatial mismatch hypothesis.

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