Innumerable columnists have opined on the study released last week that showed the American dream for poor Atlantans had all but withered and died — mostly because jobs are physically beyond reach. Climbing from poverty is more difficult in spread-out Atlanta than any other city in the nation, concluded Harvard and Berkeley researchers. And, man, the hits keep coming. Atlanta boosters had to wince when venerable New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — a Nobel Prize winner considered one of the world's leading economists — explicitly asked "So what's the matter with Atlanta?" before dissing the Big Peach as "the Sultan of Sprawl" in a Sunday op-ed piece. Krugman starts by acknowledging Atlanta's dizzying growth — on par this century with Dallas and Houston, without the oil boost. And then this: "? in one important respect booming Atlanta looks just like Detroit gone bust: both are places where the American dream seems to be dying, where the children of the poor have great difficulty climbing the economic ladder."
The Harvard-Berkeley 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.
Krugman, like the researchers, points out that Atlanta's problems stem more from sheer geography than social or racial discrimination: "? in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart ? This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren't. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can't get there."
It'd be easy to get lost in the hundreds of online comments that react to the Krugman piece. Here are some level-headed, thought-provoking highlights, for what they're worth:
Bill L, from Connecticut:
"I lived in Atlanta during the first phase of its rapid growth. I saw bad decision after bad decision made to serve the wants of the developers and business community. There are a lot of forward-thinking, good people in Atlanta, but their voices were mostly drowned out in the name of rampant development. Choking traffic, endless sprawl, and soulless neighborhoods were some of the results. There have been some efforts to change course, but so much damage has been done."
John K, from Durham:
"This is a very difficult issue here in the South. The constituencies in favor of more road-building (namely real estate and developers) are enormously powerful and drive transportation dollars far from city centers. We have urban areas that are dense enough to justify investment in mass transit, but city-dwellers always get outvoted by suburbanites who have no intention of ever using bus or rail transport."
Tony, from New York:
"New York City has the ultimate public transportation system in the nation. Someone in New York City can get anywhere on public transportation. Yet we have so much poverty in New York and apparently so little upward social mobility."
· Stranded by Sprawl [New York Times]
· Study: Atlanta Ranks Dead Last In Upward Mobility [Curbed Atlanta]
· Atlanta is No New York: Getting Behind the Obvious [Curbed Atlanta]