The Great Mystery of Commute Time and Income Mobility


Here’s something I ran across accidentally today. In a working paper released a few months ago, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren try to estimate the effect on low-income children of moving to better neighborhoods. In particular, which traits correspond to higher incomes 20 years later?

All the usual suspects have high correlations: segregation, social capital, crime, income inequality, population density, etc. But the very highest correlation—by quite a bit—is for commuting time. Moving to a neighborhood where most people commute less than 15 minutes has a big impact:

Twenty years of exposure to a [commuting zone] with a 1 standard deviation higher fraction of people with commute times less than 15 minutes increases a child’s income by [7%]….These correlations with commute times are unlikely the direct effect of being closer to jobs….It is likely some characteristic of places correlated with commute times that drives the underlying pattern.

In other words, this doesn’t mean that if mom or dad gets a job closer to home, junior will enjoy a higher income when he grows up. It means that if the family moves to a neighborhood that’s close to where its residents work, junior’s income will benefit.

This seems a little unlikely, though it’s not impossible to imagine that neighborhoods where parents are home more of the time have a beneficial effect on kids. Still, the authors are most likely right: commute time is probably standing in for something else. Perhaps neighborhoods that are close to lots of jobs have certain characteristics that are good for kids, and short commutes are just an accidental bonus.

Either way, this sure seems interesting enough to follow up on. Is it really commute time that matters? If not, what is it a proxy for?

NOTE: The chart shows the effect on boys whose parents have incomes in the bottom quarter. The effect is pretty much the same for girls.

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.