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The Depressing Truth About Single Mothers and Job Access

The Depressing Truth About Single Mothers and Job Access
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A transit system with good access to job centers is vital to all residents of a city, but it's especially important to single mothers. Not only do they earn less income than any other household with children, but they face a constant time crunch. Every minute a single mother loses to her commute is one she can't use for a parenting task.

But single parents in general, and single mothers in particular, face a considerable disadvantage when it comes to job access, according to a new study in Urban Geography.

The research team, led by Antonio Páez of McMaster University, focused on metropolitan Toronto. There, roughly 17 percent of all households are run by single parents, and the vast majority are run by single mothers. To consider the job access of this population, Páez and collaborators analyzed a composite of travel survey data, Census demographics, and employment information. They divided the latter into two types: professional and managerial jobs, and blue-collar work.

They found that single parents certainly have "different" levels of job access than other households, and that for the most part "different" meant worse. Single mothers, in particular, never had better job access than other groups, though they could occasionally achieve parity with a car. Accessibility was particularly low outside the city center.

A series of maps created by the researchers emphasize this unfortunate outcome. Here's a look at general access to employment centers in metropolitan Toronto for professional and managerial jobs. The darker the shade, the greater the access:

Here's how the situation looks for single mothers without a car:

And here's the slighter better situation that exists when single moms have a car:

It's not all grim. Access to blue-collar and service jobs is a little more promising, as those tend to be scattered across the metro area. In the city center itself, some single parents have slightly better access than other households — though, again, that's not the case for the average single mother. And that's largely irrelevant, as Páez and company point out, because so few single parents live in the city center anyway.

The researchers conclude:

As shown above, beside a few relatively limited areas where the "at-risk" population enjoys similar or better access to jobs compared to the reference demographic, individuals in single-parent households tend to be at disadvantage from an accessibility perspective.

Before drawing any larger conclusions, it's important to point out some caveats. We don't know that household type causes job access. Additionally, job access isn't the same as having a job; after all, a person can be employed in a part of town where there generally isn't much work. And, of course, the focus of this analysis was on Toronto alone.

Still, the conclusions reflect a larger problem cities face in terms of connecting people with jobs via public transportation. Transit systems have traditionally been designed to run through the central business district, often limiting their ability to reach other key employment centers. Recognizing this problem, some metro areas have embraced multi-destination bus systems that do a better job getting people from home to work.

Cities that don't make jobs accessible to all workers force people into private cars. That not only creates long-term problems for the city, it also imposes one more burden on single-parent households that already have plenty to bear.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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