the Beacon Journal editorial board

One slogan long uttered by politicians, policymakers and other public officials is “welfare to work.” The principle is that public assistance should come with requirements for recipients to seek or prepare for employment. That is easier said than done when the state economy is sluggish, as it is today, and many in Ohio have dropped out of the job market for lack of prospects.

Then, there is the challenge identified by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland in a study released last week, “A Long Ride to Work: Job Access and Public Transportation in Northeast Ohio.” Brett Barkley and Alexandre Gomes-Pereira identify how the structure of the regional economy matters. Are we organized in a way that advances as effectively as possible the concept of opportunity, especially for those at the lower rungs for income and skills?

The Fed study examines the crucial element of transportation, and answers “no.” Or at least it makes clear the region has room to get much better. The thinking echoes concerns often voiced by those pursuing ways to increase employment opportunities for the poor: Transportation, or access to work, frequently poses a major obstacle.

According to the study, those with low incomes and low skill levels have the lowest access to jobs. They face longer commutes, often between 60 minutes and 90 minutes, on public transportation (compared to 30 minutes, typically, in a car). More, this lack of access to jobs for which they are qualified has a detrimental effect across generations. It diminishes economic mobility, and, as the study notes, Northeast Ohio already has one of the lowest rates of mobility in the country.

So, what can be done? For starters, many organizations recognize the problem. The Fund for Our Economic Future has highlighted the need for improved coordination among the many players across the region, from such realms as business, housing and economic development. The Fed reinforces that view in a big way.

The Fed recommends “targeted strategies and investment” to connect low-skilled workers with the jobs they can do. It points to the need for “innovative thinking” in overcoming the transportation barriers to corporate campuses and office complexes in suburban areas. Often that final mile to work can be the most difficult to navigate via public transportation.

The region would increase access to jobs in suburban areas by enhancing the options for inter-county transportation. Public transit in Summit County, for instance, does relatively well with access within the county. Beyond its borders, access falls sharply. In that way, the study urges the region to take better advantage of federal, state and other resources designed to improve coordination and innovation.

As the Fed study stresses, this isn’t just about expanding opportunity or addressing inequities. The effort goes to strengthening the competitiveness of the region. Practically everyone rightly talks about the value of work, and yet in Northeast Ohio, as the study concludes, “jobs … are least accessible to those who need them most.” That isn’t a good situation if the objective is to bring greater vibrancy to the region, let alone open the way for many to achieve and build better lives.