Among other barriers, low-wage workers face discrimination based on commute distance

By Michael Brenneis

Along with lack of access to transportation options in areas outside the urban core, low-wage workers also face another obstacle in finding work. Discrimination by commute distance is significant when applying for low-wage jobs, concludes a new study. Affluence and long commutes, however, may not affect decisions to call applicants back.

The experiment, conducted in Washington, D.C., consisted of sending 2,260 resumes to 565 job listings requiring only a high school diploma and requesting a mailed or emailed application and resume. The fictional resumes fall into four categories: near and poor, near and affluent, far and poor, and far and affluent based on characteristics defined by the author.

In the following maps, the author illustrates the spatial disparity for low-income workers. The first shows where workers earning $1,250 per month, or less, live; the second shows where they work. For scale, the northwest side of the District measures about 10 miles.

Source: 2014 Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Data. Images from

Callback rates decrease by 1.1 percent for each mile an applicant lives from the job, with affluence held constant. Applicants with a 5- to 6-mile commute were called back 14 percent less frequently than those with an average commute of 3 miles. Since non-white Washington, D.C., residents on average live nine tenths of a mile farther from jobs than white residents, non-white residents can expect one percent fewer callbacks regardless of where they live. Applicants with stereotypically African-American sounding names are called back 6 percent less frequently than those with white sounding names, according to the study.

The author calls into question the effectiveness of programs designed to move low-wage workers into more affluent neighborhoods, and suggests that moving to areas where jobs are closer or more accessible (by transit or other means), would improve employment opportunities and perhaps diminish employer discrimination.

Even in a fairly dense urban environment with a passable transit system, discrimination over the small difference in commute distance of 2 or 3 miles is significant. It is not a huge leap to imagine that this discrimination may be more widespread, existing in less dense cities where commute times can be significantly longer.

As cities become more attractive to high-wage workers, due to their proximity to jobs and other amenities, the resulting higher cost-of-living forces lower-income populations into lower-cost areas such as the suburbs, where transportation to low-wage jobs can become an issue. Transit from suburbs can be cumbersome, and congestion can cause long, unreliable auto commutes. Discrimination based on commute distance compounds the difficulty faced by suburban lower-income populations.

Building lower-income housing near transit and jobs, improving transit, and using demand management to improve the reliability of commuting by auto, as well as adequately funding transit, are important measures to alleviate the spatial disparity between low-wage workers and low-wage jobs.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.