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In metro Atlanta, poverty is increasing fastest in suburbs, Harvard study finds

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Dubious capital of sprawl is hardly immune to “suburbanization of poverty,” research shows

A photo showing a typical aerial view of Atlanta’s vast suburbs.
A typical aerial view of Atlanta’s vast suburbs.
Photo: Maik via Southern Spaces

Much to the chagrin of chamber-of-commerce types across metro Atlanta, the Big Peach has endured a significant bruise in recent years with its fact-based reputation as being a place where the poor are relatively likely to stay that way.

But a new analysis from Harvard University shows Atlanta’s economically disadvantaged populations aren’t exactly staying put.

A trend known as the “suburbanization of poverty” is real in metro Atlanta, where the sheer number of high-poverty neighborhoods has tripled since 2000, according to a recent study by the Joint Center on Housing Studies at Harvard.

That’s not to say that impoverished urban neighborhoods aren’t on the rise, too. But Atlanta mirrors cities from coast to coast where poverty is increasing fastest in the ‘burbs—a trend that’s troubling on several levels.

“The nationwide shift in poverty from high-density urban areas to low- and medium-dense suburbs will lead to new challenges for cities,” wrote analysts with Apartment List, after poring over Harvard’s findings, “as these areas are less likely to have public transportation and social safety net programs.”

More specifically, metro Atlanta counted 102 high-poverty neighborhoods back in 2000. By 2015, that number had ballooned to 304.

The majority of those metro Atlanta neighborhoods—about 235 of them—are now in suburban and outlying areas, the Harvard analysis shows.

(Note: Harvard describes high-poverty neighborhoods as those with more than 20 percent of residents living in poverty; areas with high concentrations of broke college students are excluded).

On a national level, the graphic below illustrates where the problem of increasing high-poverty neighborhoods has been most pronounced in recent years:

And here’s a closer look at the local situation, with suburban and outlying areas represented by the fields in the middle and at right:

JCHS/Harvard