Two women in front of an arriving Metro train.
Riders wait to board a Metro train in Washington, D.C. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A recent study finds that employers hiring for low-wage jobs in Washington, D.C., are more likely to call back applicants who live nearby.

In Washington, D.C., commuting distance comes with an economic penalty. Applicants who live farther from a low-wage job in the center of the city are less likely to be called back for an interview.

That’s the main takeaway of a new study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame. It adds to the plethora of existing evidence that location can determine a person’s economic well-being. Unlike previous studies, which often detail how characteristics of a neighborhood—such as poverty, segregation, lack of quality education—impede its residents’ chances of getting ahead, this one unpacks the dynamic from the perspective of employers: Do they care where you live? And if so, what exactly do they care about?

To answer those questions, economist David C. Phillips and his team focused on D.C.—a city, like many others in America, that has a “spatial mismatch” between low-wage jobs and those who work them. There, these types of positions are largely located in the center of the city, whereas the workers who do them tend to live disproportionately in the Southeast fringes. For a few months in 2014, Phillips and his team sent out fictional résumés to job openings in the city’s core, and analyzed response rates. The conclusion: Yes, employers do care about where applicants live; they care a lot.

“We find that the positive response rates for folks who were listed as living in nearby, affluent neighborhoods were significantly higher than for folks who live in poorer neighborhoods, farther from jobs,” Phillips told CityLab.

In the second step, Phillips sought to tease out exactly what aspect of the neighborhood mattered to employers by comparing applicants that only differed in terms of commuting distance. (He takes commuting distance as the straight line between the job and the applicant’s address in miles, because he finds it strongly correlated with commuting time in D.C.) Here, Philips found a large discrepancy: Hiring managers tended to call back those who lived farther 14 percent less often, all else being equal.

Phillips’ research did not uncover strong evidence that employers also cared about the racial-make up or income of the neighborhoods of job applicants, but it also found—like studies before it—that applicants whose names were perceived as being distinctly African American were called back less. He drew a link between the two types of discrimination and found that a fictional job applicant who lived five to six miles away from the job in question faced a similar penalty as one having a name employers perceived as “black.” Of course, these two disadvantages are not mutually exclusive: For black Washingtonians hailing from Deanwood or Anacostia, they can compound during the employment process.

“If somebody puts both of those things on their application, they’re going to get both of those penalties,” Phillips said.

That finding is significant in D.C., a city where a lot of the central neighborhoods have become increasingly unaffordable over the last few decades, pricing out low-income residents, many of whom are black, to farther flung parts of the city. For them, moving farther away could compound existing racial discrimination and potentially trap them in poverty.

“You can imagine this world in which particular locations become self-perpetuating concentrations of poverty, because they have limited access to jobs, because it’s hard to physically move from one place to the other, and employers know that,” Phillips said. “So they look at the resumé and say, ‘Aah, Alabama Avenue, I’m not sure if that person can make it up here reliably. I think I’ll take the person who lives a little bit closer.’ You can have a situation where the person moves to a low-income neighborhood because they’re poor, and they end up remaining in that situation because of where they live.”

The study raises important questions for policymakers everywhere. It implies that employers are concerned that employees won’t be able to show up for work reliably if they live far away. Does that mean housing advocates should be factoring in distance from the job district, along with affluence and quality of education, when facilitating a move for the beneficiary of a housing choice voucher? What does this mean for public transit? Does it need to be cheaper? Or do cities need to offer more extensive, more frequent, more reliable service? Should local officials be looking for interventions elsewhere—partnering with affordable car purchase programs or low-income ride sharing initiatives? And should cities be paying more attention to who is disproportionately burdened by cuts in service?

If the same findings hold true in other cities in the U.S., the answer is probably all of the above.

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