Atlanta’s economic (im)mobility

By Rick Badie

A recent study shows that many of Atlanta’s poor children, generally, stay poor. Those born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution ladder have a 4 percent chance of making it into the top fifth. Compare this to Salt Lake City, where the corresponding number sits at 11.5 percent, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project. Today’s guest writers, who find our region’s economic immobility unacceptable, weigh the issue. We also post an essay written by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed that originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Reduce economic immobility

By Michael Leo Owens

The American Dream is obscure for many of Atlanta’s poor. A recent economic study makes it plain.

The chances that a poor metro Atlanta child will eventually earn a higher income than his or her parents is slim. Bottom-to-top movement, generationally, is unlikelier in metro Atlanta than most places in (or beyond) the South, including metro areas that economically compete with us like Charlotte and Nashville.

Income immobility in the South is partly a legacy of weak labor rights, stingy government and Jim Crow. Income immobility in metro Atlanta also results from contemporary local conditions.

Our suburbs now host unprecedented poverty. Suburban economic insecurity from unemployment and a decline in wealth are culprits. Underdeveloped suburban transit and philanthropy also foster suburban poverty. And income segregation and income inequality, two factors of lower income mobility, tighten the suburban poverty trap.

Our new, breakaway cities also stymie income mobility. Their capture and hoarding of commercial resources undermines the ethos and practice of shared responsibility to increase opportunities for all. Their deliberately low government expenditures, another factor of income immobility, reduce civic capacity to cut suburban and urban poverty. Their existence restricts upward mobility in metro Atlanta.

Low-performing and scandalous public schools in our older cities and suburbs and struggling single-parent families put poor kids on the slowest and narrowest economic escalators. Unfortunately, when acquisition and retention of knowledge by poorer kids are low and single-parent families are numerous, income immobility worsens.

If we don’t improve the prospects of poor children in metro Atlanta to climb past their parents on the income ladder, we should expect to remain low on many socioeconomic rankings, thus jeopardizing growth and prosperity.

Better access to quality public education for our poorer kids in cities (and suburbs) will improve income mobility. Improving the skills, relationships, opportunities and determination of their parents to escape poverty will help, too.


Spatially concentrate more of our growth near the poor. Build more mixed-use development and mixed-income communities. Invest in a real metropolitan transit system. That’ll increase the probability that opportunities for the prosperous stop bypassing our poor.

Income immobility, like our other great challenges of traffic congestion and air pollution, is a metropolitan problem requiring metro solutions. Certainly, Atlantans question regional action and we distrust our public leaders to improve society through it. Yet greater cross-community cooperation and resource sharing are necessary nowto improve where more of the poor stand economically and where our area stands in competition for growth and prosperity.

We must reduce income immobility. If not, many of metro Atlanta’s poor will waste their imagination on the American Dream.

Michael Leo Owens is associate professor of political science at Emory University.

American dream should be available for all

By Buzz Brockway

The concept of the “American Dream” is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, which says we have the “…right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As long as there has been an America, people have come here wanting a chance to live that dream.

While there may be differing definitions, I think we can agree that a central component of the American Dream is that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed no matter the station in life to which they are born. We are the land of opportunity, and while nothing is guaranteed and success is not assured, the opportunity is there for all.

The study on intergenerational mobility, headed up by Berkeley and Harvard researchers, casts doubt as to whether Americans at the bottom of the income scale can really achieve the American Dream.

Unfortunately, the results for most of the South were not encouraging. Only 4 percent of children born in metro Atlanta between 1980 and 1981, whose parents earned less than $25,000 per year, were able to climb to the top fifth of income earners.

Headlines trumpeted problems across the South, but it should be noted that Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati aren’t doing much better. Those who would say this is simply a “red state” problem stand on shaky ground.

The study provides food for thought for Republicans and Democrats. For example, government programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit did not help people climb from the bottom 25 percent to the top. Areas with higher income mobility had more two-parent households and more involvement in community groups such as churches. While many are weary of debating social issues, this study demonstrates that issues such as marriage and religious freedom greatly impact our society.

Another key factor in mobility is the presence of a quality education. Many parts of Georgia are struggling, contributing to the challenges low-income children face. Rather than blaming teachers or demanding more money, we need to have a serious debate about how we are educating Georgia’s children. The system needs serious reform because what we are doing now isn’t getting the job done.

As the study shows, a thriving economy is necessary to lift people out of poverty. Georgia is, and must remain a good place to do business. I am proud to be part of a Legislature that is continually working to make Georgia the best place in the nation to do business.

The American Dream should be available to everyone, regardless of where they are born or how much money their parents earn. Government can play a role in creating an environment where economic growth is possible. Government must also do better in providing a quality education for all. But government ultimately cannot solve this problem. Economic, religious, civic institutions and families must be strong and vibrant for our citizens to succeed.

State Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, represents Georgia House District 102.

Atlanta: A trend of remarkable success

By Kasim Reed

A recent Harvard/Berkeley study on the effectiveness of tax policy includes an impressive amount of detail on income mobility in the United States and provides valuable information that can be used by state and local leaders to support policy decisions. What it does not do, and what its authors specifically caution against, is establish an absolute evaluative ranking of regional efficacy at eradicating poverty. Coverage in The New York Times (Monday, July 22, 2013) and other media sources draws conclusions about regional performance based upon either a narrow or flawed reading of the study.

The study limited the definition of social mobility to those individuals who have made the rare leap from the poorest quintile to the richest quintile. Within the study’s context of evaluating tax policy, this was wholly justified. It appears that some in the media failed to understand this nuance and misread this definition as an absolute measure of mobility. Furthermore, the article in The New York Times specifically calls out Atlanta, but in reality, the city is used as a stand-in for the entire Southeast. The study’s findings are clear that Atlanta is not unique in facing challenges outlined in the article, but rather that the entire Southeastern region underperforms on the poorest-to-richest mobility metric relative to the rest of the country.

The New York Times article draws a negative conclusion about Atlanta that is not substantiated by a fuller reading of the study’s data and does not accurately reflect the hard work done by many in the city for generations to foster opportunity across racial, ethnic and gender lines.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history knows that the Southeast has been challenged by entrenched intergenerational poverty largely as a legacy of our challenging past. One of the most difficult legacies of segregation is concentrated poverty that exacerbates the challenges of income disparity: higher crime rates, under performing schools, poor health outcomes and substandard housing options. We are also typically governed by conservative state Legislatures that are less likely to support public transportation funding and strong social safety net initiatives. Most Southern states also have less effective labor laws. As a result, organized labor is not as strong compared to most northeastern cities. 

In Atlanta, we have made remarkable progress in the past 40 years despite these obstacles. A more sophisticated examination of the data in the study reflects that trend. Against the limited poorest-to-richest mobility metric, even the highest performing regions identified in the article only achieved about 10 percent mobility. Looking more broadly at mobility out of the bottom quintile, Atlanta compares quite favorably with other major American regions cited in The New York Times article.

Nearly 70 percent of Atlanta children in the bottom-income quintile escaped from that group. That was essentially the same as for Dallas and Denver and 1 to 2 percentage points better than for New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Phoenix, Portland and Washington, D.C. None of this information was reflected in The New York Times article or other coverage of the study. If social mobility is considered in a wider context from the lowest rung, Atlanta does slightly better than most of the major cities identified in the article. Surely helping a larger percentage of people moderately improve their economic status is a better outcome than significantly helping only a small percentage.

Our city boasts a diverse population, strong business incentives, an expansive university system, solid logistics infrastructure and the kind of quality of life that compels thousands of Northeasterners to move here every year. Georgia is now the 10th-largest state in the nation. Atlanta is the 9th-largest metropolitan statistical area with a population of almost 5.3 million; over the last decade we were among America’s five fastest growing metropolitan statistical areas.

Atlanta is home to the world’s busiest airport with more than 95 million passengers per year, an economic impact of $32 billion. MARTA, our rapid transit system, is the 9th largest in the nation but the only one of the 10 largest that receives almost no state funding. We have the fourth-highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies and more than 57 colleges and universities in our city and region. Among young people between the ages of 18 and 24, 60 percent are enrolled in college, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Per capita income in the city increased by one percent even though it declined statewide by 12 percent.

More encouragingly, Republican and Democratic leaders have begun to work together to address issues that affect social mobility across racial, ethnic and gender lines. Last summer, a 10-county transportation referendum that garnered bipartisan support from  Gov. Nathan Deal and me passed in the city of Atlanta, but did not carry enough regional votes to go into effect and generate more than $8 billion in infrastructure improvements. But it will not be the last effort to try to address the region’s traffic congestion and transportation challenges. We also have a renewed focus on improving education in our city’s public schools, which offer the best path to upward social mobility for thousands of children. And we are partnering on initiatives to bring more jobs into the city, from Fortune 500 company headquarter relocations such as PulteGroup Inc. to new entrepreneurial ventures and IT firms such as Athenahealth Inc.

The serious problems caused by intergenerational poverty, stagnant wages and lack of opportunity are ones that we, as a nation, have ignored for too long.  In Atlanta, we need to continue to focus on supporting lower-income families that have escaped poverty to continue upward movement. Those are challenges that we must address now. As mayor of Atlanta, I am committed to doing so.


11 comments Add your comment

Mary Elizabeth

August 15th, 2013
4:29 am

SAWB, 1:48 am

“So, Mr. Brockway is a republican representing Gwinnett County whose school system routinely out performs other metro school systems like Atlanta, DeKalb and Clayton all of which are run by Democrats. So, the answer here is to vote out all the Republicans and elect more Democrats?”

SAWB, your biases, as well as your ignorance regarding educational matters, are showing through your comments, above.

Here are the facts. According to the websites of each of the four school systems you named, Gwinnett County School System has 132 schools and 4 charter schools; DeKalb County School System has approximately 135 schools and 4 charter schools; Clayton County School System has approximately 54 schools and 2 charter schools; Atlanta Public School System has approximately 80 schools and 13 charter schools.

None of the websites of the four schools districts mentions Democrats or Republicans, nor should they. Lawmakers in Georgia’s Legislature do not run schools systems. Educators do that.

ALEC’s membership among Georgia’s legislators is the 3rd highest number (42 ALEC legislators) in the nation. Practically all of the ALEC members in Georgia’s Legislature are Republicans. Just as the Ultra-Rightwing of the Republican Party, nationally, is dominating the national Republican Party’s political agenda, so ALEC members in Georgia’s Republican-dominated Legislature are dominating policies and laws effecting education throughout the state of Georgia. Of the 136 schools in Gwinnett, 139 in DeKalb, 56 in Clayton, and 93 in the APS, when the state’s lawmakers cut educational funding to traditional school systems throughout Georgia, all four of those school systems you mentioned are adversely effected financially, regardless of whether the state legislators in those particular districts are Democrats or Republicans.

I repeat. In order to stop the bleeding of funding from public school systems throughout Georgia, and in order to insure that resources are provided to improve traditional school systems throughout Georgia, voters must elect Democrats instead of Republicans to Georgia’s General Assembly. Democrats are not under the influence of ALEC’s national educational agenda, and if Democrats are able to lead again in Georgia’s General Assembly, the state will return to improving our vast numbers of public schools in the state of Georgia.

Vote Democratic, not Republican, for your state representatives to Georgia’s Legislature in order to improve the vast numbers of Georgia’s traditional public schools. Democrats are not under the influence of ALEC.