It’s a vicious cycle: those living in poverty are often unable to afford housing in city centers, putting them far from jobs. And, according to new research set to appear in The Journal of Human Resources, employers may discriminate against job seekers who have longer commutes. This could be one factor making it difficult for many Americans to escape poverty, posits David Phillips, the study’s author.
Phillips had a hunch that a person’s address might impact their chances of getting hired. To measure the effects of distance on an applicant’s performance, Phillips’s team sent 2,260 resumes in response to low-wage position openings (requiring only a high school education) in Washington, DC. The findings were clear: the farther away an applicant lived from the job location, the less likely they were to receive a callback from the employer. To clarify these results, Phillips wanted to determine whether employers looked more favorably on addresses from wealthier neighborhoods, even if they were far from the place of work. When resumes were sent from neighborhoods with similar levels of affluence but different commute lengths, Phillips found that applicants from the more distant neighborhoods received 14 percent fewer callbacks than applicants who lived closer to the job site, even though both applicants could be presumed to have the same socioeconomic status. Overall, Phillips determined that employers weigh an applicant’s distance from the job more heavily than their neighborhood’s affluence.
Phillips, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, joined us to discuss the genesis of his interest in this topic and the larger implications of this study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, listen to Phillips’s interview with NPR, and check out some of the press that this study has been receiving, here, here, and here.
How did you decide to pursue this topic?
During my dissertation, I spent some time working with a non-profit employment agency in Washington, DC. Most of their clients lived in less affluent neighborhoods in Southeast DC and transportation was a common question. I helped them run a pilot testing whether public transit subsidies could facilitate the job search process for people looking for low-wage jobs. It became clear that their clients were working with major transportation issues. At some point in that project, the idea came up that employers were probably aware of the transportation difficulties that people face and might respond to the address listed on the job application.
Why did it make sense to publish in The Journal of Human Resources?
The JHR has a great reputation for publishing rigorous work on the most important questions in empirical economics. As a result, it reaches a broad audience of applied economists. I thought the paper’s topic would be a good fit for that audience given increased attention to neighborhood effects and urban geography in the literature lately. The JHR also has a track record of publishing correspondence experiments. This paper fits with earlier work by David Neumark and Joanna Lahey that has shown up in the pages of The JHR.
How does the distance bias interact with other discrimination applicants might face—due to class, race, or gender, for example?
Discrimination based on commute distance could compound existing inequity. Other things equal, remote places are cheaper and thus attract people with other disadvantages. For example, on average a black person in DC lives one mile farther from jobs than a white person. Even if employers have a clear, rational, unbiased reason for avoiding people with long commutes, that penalty disproportionately falls on people who face other barriers.
What part of your findings surprised you the most, and why?
An interesting topic is one where you suspect an effect exists where other people think it doesn’t. So, I went into this betting employers care about addresses, and the response to distance was not a surprise to me. I was more surprised that employers do not respond much to neighborhood affluence. I expected employers to really penalize distant, poor neighborhoods both because of their remoteness and because of poverty. And I don’t find evidence of the latter despite the fact that the fake applicants come from very, very different neighborhoods in terms of affluence.
David Phillips, PhD, works in the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) within the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on poverty, particularly as it relates to low-wage labor markets, crime, housing, and transportation. His research has been published in high quality economics field journals and presented widely for policy audiences. Prior to coming to Notre Dame, David received a Bachelor’s degree from Butler University, earned a PhD in Economics from Georgetown University, and worked for 4 years at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.