Transportation as a Racial Justice Issue: White Southern Republicans Opposition to Mass Transit Spending Keep Low Income Black People Mired in Poverty 

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Transportation as a racial justice issue? A civil and a human right?  Although it may not seem to be a sexy or glamorous issue, it is real.  They say that it is expensive to be poor in America.  And the lack of access to transportation keeps low income and Black people trapped in poverty, with no place to go, limited job opportunities and few pathways to upward socioeconomic mobility.

In a May report in the New York Times, Mikayla Bouchard wrote that the scarcity of efficient and reliable transportation serves as an obstacle for success for low-income folks trying to make it.  The findings of a Harvard study were revealing, concluding that commuting time is the single most important factor in escaping poverty.  The longer your commute time, the lower your chances that you will make it out.  In fact, the authors of the study, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, found that the link between transportation and upward mobility is more solid than the relationship between mobility and factors such as test scores, crime and the proportion of two-parent families.

“We should be cognizant of the choices available to inner-city families and residents in high jobless inner-city black neighborhoods,” Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson told WiscNews, “because they live under constraints and face challenges that most people in the larger society do not experience, or can’t even imagine.”

In a recent report in the Washington Post, Chico Harlan exposes the vulnerabilities of the poor in the Deep South, with the region’s “increasingly pervasive and isolating form of extreme poverty.”  As a result of real estate prices and government policies such as dismantling of public housing, the poor have been pushed out of the cities and away from the jobs.  Meanwhile, unemployment is high and wages are low, the social safety net has been ripped to shreds, and deep poverty has increased by 24 percent over the past decade.  And although they increasingly depend on public transportation, the poor find themselves in the worst part of the country for mass transit.

Harlan noted a 2011 Brookings Institution report, which found that of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, 15 of the 20 worst transit systems were in the South—including Atlanta, where white suburbanites voted against a transit expansion on the belief that Blacks would have been the primary beneficiaries. Other cities that voted against expansion were Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Birmingham, Alabama and Greenville, South Carolina. This transportation crisis creates social immobility and increased chances that someone born into poverty will remain there, unable to lift up the economic ladder to prosperity.

When it comes to a variety of indices, including life expectancy, income, households with bank accounts, low upward mobility, and children living in single-parent homes, the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina find themselves at the bottom of the list.

It is no accident that the worst infrastructure and transportation systems are in the Deep South, which traditionally has far less support for mass transit.  After all, this region of the country is the center of gravity for the Republican Party.  Opposition to investments in transportation is linked to Southern white conservative ideology against Black people.  Infrastructure development stimulates economic growth in cities and increases U.S. economic competitiveness.  Yet, conservative Republicans who rule much of the South oppose it because they are against tax increases and government programs from which Blacks stand to benefit.  In fact, taxes and government programs have become code words for Black people.  This was the essence of the Republican Southern Strategy, to replace the “N word” with talk about economics and taxes, with an understanding that getting rid of government programs means Black people stand to lose more than whites.

This mentality helps explain why governors in Southern states that needed the transportation funding in President Obama’s stimulus package rejected it.  And this is why governors in states such as Florida, New Jersey and Maryland rejected spending on rail projects and transit systems in their states, often in favor of roads, in order to appeal to the Southerners in their party.

However, there are solutions to addressing the long reaching impact of lack of transportation on poverty.  For example, the Harvard study supports policies that reduce urban segregation and concentrated poverty, such as affordable housing subsidies, zoning law changes, better public schools and improving childhood environments.

A new study from the Center for American Progress, An Opportunity Agenda for Renters: The Case for Simultaneous Investments in Residential Mobility and Low-income Communities, argues that there is a mismatch between where low-income people can afford to live and where the economic opportunities are located. The report suggests investments in low income communities and programs to enable low income people to move into high-opportunity neighborhoods.  Some recommendations include using tax policy to increase the supply of affordable rental housing, expand the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, create a federal renter’s tax credit, provide assistance ad counseling to households who want to move to communities with greater opportunity, and eliminate restrictive zoning and land use policies that drive up land prices and make housing options limited and unaffordable for low income people.

Finally, some believe the corporate sector and the wealthy have a role to play in fighting poverty.  For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has enlisted help from corporations and investors in addressing inequality.

“Our city’s business and philanthropic communities are critical collaborators in our work fighting against income inequality,” de Blasio said in a statement to Bloomberg. “With support of our private partners we are working to strengthen the economy, prepare our future workforce and make our city more equal and accessible.”

One of de Blasio’s plans to create affordable housing through rezoning, including increasing the density of certain neighborhoods in order to finance the construction of below-market rate units, has faced criticism from community advocates who fear gentrification and tax-break giveaways to wealthy developers.

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