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Racial segregation discourages minorities
from taking jobs in suburbs, says Ross
September 14, 1998

If you live in a major city and are offered a job that requires you to relocate to the suburbs, will you take it.

"If you're an African-American facing this situation you may not," says Stephen Ross, an assistant professor of economics.

African-Americans living in major metropolitan areas are 30 percent less likely to take jobs that require them to relocate, he says in an article published earlier this year in the Journal of Urban Economics..

Because African-American residences are concentrated in central cities, Ross says, this finding suggests African-American workers may not be taking advantage of jobs being created in the suburbs.

Only 3.5 percent of African-American residents in metropolitan areas both change jobs and move in the same year, says Ross. He says that after analyzing detailed information on African-American households in metropolitan areas collected by the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics, he would expect this figure to be 5 percent. "A 1.5 percent difference may not seem like very much but racial segregation, which is at the root of the problem, has persisted for decades," Ross says. "Over time, small annual differences can accumulate into big numbers."

The concentration of minority residences within metropolitan areas appears to shape the options of individual minority households, says Ross. The fact that minority neighborhoods are often centralized may limit the ability of minorities to exploit all the available labor and housing market opportunities.

For those African-Americans who want to exploit the opportunities in the suburbs, Ross says, housing discrimination and the lack of integrated neighborhoods may discourage them from taking a chance..

"Commuting is always an option, but if you don't have a car and you have to depend on mass transit to the suburbs, getting to work may require more travel time than urban residents are prepared to spend," Ross says.

"In addition, members of the African-American community may have less information about job opportunities because their job networks are oriented around the central city where they live," he says.

This in turn may limit their earning power. "If mobility is limited and minorities do not choose the most favorable combination of job and residence available, this difference may directly affect wages, housing price and commuting distance."

Housing segregation, Ross says, could also lead to labor market discrimination. "If the suburbs are characterized by a lot of integrated neighborhoods in a very diverse community, then employers are probably willing to employ a diverse work force because there is a degree of racial harmony," he says. "If you have a very segregated housing market employers might take that as a signal that it is not necessarily wise to hire a minority to deal with whites in suburban neighborhoods, for example."

In addition, employment opportunities in central cities have been changing over time and that has put working class minorities at a disadvantage. In Baltimore, Ross says, 25 percent of the jobs that do not require a high school diploma or college degree have moved into the suburbs. In Philadelphia that rate is 20 percent, while in Boston and New York 14 and 12 percent of these jobs have moved away from the city.

If African-Americans are not looking outside the cities for jobs in the suburbs, they will face high rates of unemployment. "If you are unemployed often or you have long spells of unemployment, then it is going to be more difficult to find a job in the future," he says.

One way to get African Americans to consider taking a job in a suburb even if it requires them to relocate is by decreasing the level of racial segregation in housing, Ross says.

Programs such as Moving to Opportunities, established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are designed to break down economic and racial segregation by moving poor individuals into suburbs and helping them find jobs.

"It is a start," Ross says. "Active enforcement of fair housing laws and good low-income housing opportunities in suburban areas would certainly help decrease racial and economic segregation."

Luis Mocete