A study released this week by Harvard and Berkeley researchers indicates it's tougher to pull off a rags-to-riches life trajectory in Atlanta than pretty much anywhere else in the country. The big takeaway from the groundbreaking research is this: Economists view the data as proof that characteristics of different regions are holding people back, as opposed to characteristics of the people themselves. In building a narrative of the study, which was based on millions of anonymous earnings records, the New York Times zeroed in on Atlanta — and specifically a struggling mother in DeKalb County, whose four-hour roundtrip commute is straining her quality of life. With wording sure to make the Atlanta Regional Commission cringe, the Times describes our fair metro as such: "The low-income neighborhoods here often stretch for miles, with rows of houses and low-slung apartments, interrupted by the occasional strip mall, and lacking much in the way of good-paying jobs." And then, this: "This geography appears to play a major role in making Atlanta one of the metropolitan areas where it is most difficult for lower-income households to rise into the middle class and beyond ?" Doesn't exactly paint the ATL as fertile ground for the American Dream.
The study found that a child raised in the bottom fifth income bracket in Atlanta has just a 4 percent chance of reaching the top fifth. In its bleak outlook for poor children, Atlanta joins southern brethren like Charlotte, Memphis and Raleigh, along with industrial Midwestern cities like Indianapolis and Cincinnati. New York, Boston, Salt Lake City and parts of California saw some of the highest mobility rates.
While regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates, the issue isn't clear-cut along racial lines. Again, the Times pointed to Atlanta to note that both black and white residents have poor upward mobility here. The most common lament the newspaper found among the interviewees in Atlanta, which included a Gwinnett County network engineer making $27 per hour, was that "concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get to the job opportunities."
All this reminds us of a book published a few months ago — "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America" — that lends credence to the idea that America's suburban utopias are eroding, while pointing to Atlanta as a prime example. Atlanta ranked fourth — slotted between Colorado Springs (No. 3) and Grand Rapids, Mich. — on a list of cities that saw substantial growth in suburban poverty between 2000 and 2010. Brookings researcher and co-author Elizabeth Kneebone attributed the rise to a variety of factors, including increased diversity in America's suburban populations and the gentrification of cities. Honing in the focus, Atlanta magazine provided a local perspective. For decades, more people have called suburban Atlanta home than the city itself — makes sense, because there's way more room out there — but by 2010, 87 percent of the region's poor people lived in the 'burbs. The number of poor in the city has held steady.
The magazine boiled the issue down to the common root of Atlanta ills — transit. "On average, a poor person in the suburbs can only reach 18 percent of Atlanta's jobs," the report reads. "What's worse, those commutes can take up to ninety minutes each way."
Two more interesting stats culled form the book: In metro Atlanta, two-thirds of jobs are located within a ten-mile radius of downtown; and in the last five years, the suburbs have seen a dramatic 25 percent increase in the number of "poor" students.
· In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters [New York Times]
· Experts: Atlanta's A Leader For Suburban Poverty Growth [Curbed Atlanta]
· The study itself [Harvard/Berkeley]