From Activist to Scholar of Transportation and Economic Opportunity

Evelyn Blumenberg

Evelyn Blumenberg is being honored as a Transportation Ladders of Opportunity Champion of Change.

I am honored to be a White House Champion of Change and join the many other impressive leaders in being recognized. 

I have devoted my life’s work to alleviating poverty in the U.S. As the daughter of immigrants, I’ve seen first-hand the many obstacles families face in striving for economic mobility and stability. From an early age, I was committed to making life better for those struggling to fit in, to survive, to prosper. My early professional career included working with clients to obtain needed social services and organizing in low-income communities to effect economic policy change.

After many years of 80-hour weeks and sleeping on strangers’ couches, I returned to school at UCLA to get a Master’s degree in urban planning. My motivation was to gain a better understanding of the problems facing low-income communities and to expand my repertoire of tools needed to address these problems. UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning was the perfect home for my interests in social justice as many of the faculty and students shared similar passions and concerns. In fact, it was such a terrific home that I decided to stay on for a PhD. 

My commitment to urban poverty research—and UCLA—persists. I am currently a Professor of Urban Planning in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The concerns motivating my research are unchanged from my days as a community organizer, but today I play a different role. My teaching and research examine many dimensions of poverty and low-wage labor markets; it is through my published research and my terrific students that I seek to enable others to effectively organize for change.

Early in my research career, a colleague (Professor Paul Ong) and I examined the relationship between welfare usage and spatial access to employment opportunities. At about the same time, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, reforming welfare into a time-limited program that requires welfare recipients to make rapid transitions into the labor market. Based on my earlier research, it seemed likely that access to transportation could play an important role in linking low-income women to job opportunities.

This insight prompted a series of research projects on the role of transportation in the welfare-to-work transition. Now, more than 15 years later, I continue to conduct research on the links among transportation access, employment, and poverty. Certainly, public transit is essential to the mobility of families with limited access to automobiles, particularly in cities. However, my research shows that for most low-income families, a car can be the difference between having a job or remaining unemployed. Cars enable relatively speedy travel over long distances, the ability to make intervening stops at day care centers and grocery stores, and safety when traveling at night.

My work showing the overwhelming benefits of car access for poor people has sometimes gotten me in hot water with environmentalists. I am deeply sympathetic with the efforts of many – including those in my own field of urban planning – who work tirelessly to reduce the environmental harms of car-dependence. Yet it shouldn’t surprise anyone that after a century of mostly car-focused urban and suburban development in the U.S., not having a car puts people at a considerable disadvantage – especially in suburban and outlying areas. In an era of growing income inequality, it would be unwise and unfair to pursue our environmental goals at the expense of those families who most need cars as one rung in their ladder of opportunity.

Dr. Evelyn Blumenberg is a Professor and Chair of Urban Planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.

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