Thursday, May 23, 2013

Unemployment and commuting

A recent NY Times story called attention to research by Profs David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald ("Challenge to Dogma on Owning a Home").  The study shows that states with higher home ownership rates have higher unemployment.  Here is a punchline (from the Times story):

"If the correlation is real, what could be the cause? The professors say they believe that high homeownership in an area leads to people staying put and commuting farther and farther to jobs, creating cost and congestion for companies and other workers. They speculate that the role of zoning may be important, as communities dominated by homeowners resort to “not in my backyard” efforts that block new businesses that could create jobs. Perhaps the energy sector would be less freewheeling in North Dakota if there were more homeowners."

I worry about the use of state averages.  Variations within and between metropolitan areas are big. (ADDED, not to mention urban vs rural areas.)  And I could find no correlations between metropolitan unemployment rates amd commuting. BLS provides metropolitan area unemploymwent rates as well as year-to-year unemployment rate changes. NHTS provides household level commuting data for the metro areas. The correlations that I found for the 43 areas for which I could get data for both variables were these: 2009 mean commute time (minutes, solo drivers) and 2012 unemployment -0.07; 2009 commute time variance and 2012 unemployment -0.12; 2009 mean commute time and 2012-2013 change in unemployment, -0.08; 2009 commute time variance and 2012-2013 change in unemployment -0.10. For the commuting-unemployment link, there is apparently not much there.

More generally, the default assumption has been that homeownership is chock full of positive externalities. So the more the merrier.  So pour on the policy. That has not worked out so well. The theoretical argument goes for market determined homeownership rates, not the ones that have been generated by years of policy push.