The civil rights movement and race riots of the 1960s and 1990s drew attention to low income communities, particularly urban communities of color, and sparked important federal policy responses to social exclusion. The movement also underscored an often overlooked aspect of social mobility and economic inequality—transportation.
Federal goals for social mobility then and now, however, were mixed. In the 1960s, efforts to increase mobility and job access in impoverished communities were designed largely to quell social unrest rather than explicitly address social exclusion in the interests of economic justice. Similarly, social policy changes in the 1990s emphasized paring back the federal welfare system and devolving power to states rather than poverty alleviation. Lessons from each of these time periods, however, illuminate the relationships between transportation mobility, employment, economic well-being, and the often whipsawed response of the federal government to these issues.
This paper considers a 40-year span of federal policy toward transportation mobility for low-income workers, including the most recent Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) program, administered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). At its inception, policymakers and advocates viewed JARC as a major policy victory for low-income and minority communities. Grassroots organizations were pivotal to its enactment, particularly community organizing groups in major metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Hartford, and Columbus.
The paper begins with a discussion of federal policy during the 1960s and 1970s. Then, as now, the social and economic circumstances—and the federal policy response—surrounding transportation mobility are strikingly similar. Employment accessibility studies from the 1960s through the early 2000s consistently characterize the situation facing low-income workers in simplistic terms that primarily stress the travel connection to jobs, largely ignoring nonwork travel and other household needs. This myopic view also informs federal policy, which stresses work-related travel. The final sections of the paper examine the types of projects that JARC funds and the relative size and distribution of project funds.