A research project by Dr. David Phillips of the Hope College economics faculty is seeking to clarify understanding of at least one potential factor underlying endemic urban poverty.

Phillips, who is an assistant professor of economics, is going to be taking a closer look at the role that commuting distance and neighborhood characteristics play when employers are considering job applicants.  The year-long project, “Long Commutes or Neighborhood Perceptions: Why Do Employers Avoid Applicants from High-Poverty Neighborhoods,” has recently received support through a $24,942 grant from the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California-Davis.

Recognizing that there are no quick solutions to urban poverty, Phillips hopes that his research might at least suggest some possible steps in addressing part of the problem.

“The bigger-picture question is:  ‘Why is it that we continue to see concentrated poverty?’  That’s a feature of the landscape in many cities,” he said.

“For people of faith, there’s a need to respond but it’s difficult to know what the best response is,” Phillips said.  “The big motivation for this research project is, ‘Here’s this big, intractable problem that’s been around a long time.  Can we get at a piece of it and get at why it’s happening?’”

Phillips noted that previous research has found that employers call back applicants from poor, distant neighborhoods at lower rates, but that the motivation for employer discrimination based on residential neighborhood remains unclear.

“Employers could be responding to long commuting distances, which could lead to higher employee absence/tardiness rates or fatigue on the job,” he said.  “On the other hand, employers may perceive workers from particular neighborhoods to be lower quality workers, on average, and thus discriminate based on neighborhood characteristics such as poverty or racial composition rather than distance to the job.”

Through his research project, Phillips’ team will submit fictional applications to prospective employers in a major metropolitan center, with the controlling variable being the address of the applicant.  The goal will be to see whether or not employers, who won’t know that the applications aren’t real, respond differently to identically-qualified applicants from nearby and distant neighborhoods, as well as from affluent and poor neighborhoods.

“The distinction between discrimination based on commuting distance versus neighborhood characteristics matters for public policy,” he said.  “Some policy responses, such as public transit improvements, may be appropriate if employers respond to distance itself but not if they respond to fixed neighborhood attributes.”

Phillips will be working on the research collaboratively with three Hope students, collecting data primarily during the summer of 2014 and then analyzing the results in the fall.

He’s looking forward to the students’ involvement, and not only because of the significant contribution that they’ll be making as co-researchers.  The opportunity to pursue meaningful research projects while using the process to teach at the same time was an important consideration when he chose to join the faculty in 2012.

“It’s one of the things that I like about Hope:  that we recognize that we can do both,” he said.

“I couldn’t do the experiment without them—it’s very labor intensive,” he said.  “I certainly need them, and it should be a good experience for them as well to see what research in economics looks like.”