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Are sprawl and racism the culprits in Atlanta’s woeful upward-mobility ranking?

Uh, sure. But our lousy schools don’t help, either.

Just over a week ago—an eternity in 24/7 media time—the New York Times reported on a Harvard/Berkeley study that examined the geography of upward mobility: in other words, does where you are born determine your chances of getting ahead?

The Equality of Opportunity Project's goal was to see if tax expenditures helped fight poverty. Short answer: not really. But in the process of that discovery, the researchers documented that where you are born really correlates to how well you do later. (Click here to download the executive summary. And click here if you want to geek out on statistics and download a slew of Excel files.)

Metro Atlanta ranked lowest of the metro areas that the Times story highlighted, the thirty largest “commuting zones” among the 741 analyzed by the researchers. A kid born in the lowest income tier in the Atlanta zone, the study showed, had just a 4 percent probability of making it into the highest income bracket by adulthood.

Those of you bemoaning headlines about Atlanta being the “worst” place to get ahead can take cold comfort in the fact that the probability a poor kid from Clarksdale, Mississippi, will be a wealthy adult is just 2.9 percent; for one from Memphis, Tennessee, only 2.6 percent. But, no matter how you jiggle the statistics, metro Atlanta is at the bottom of the heap.

Headlines aside, no one should be that surprised by the pervasiveness of poverty here. As one recent study showed, the metro area has one of the highest rates of suburban poverty. You can visualize that using a new Urban Institute mapping tool that contrasts poverty in 1980 and 2010. The city of Atlanta proper ranks worst for income inequality, which you don’t need a fancy interactive widget to grasp; just take a drive from the downtown W hotel to Vine City and English Avenue and you’ll get a tutorial in having and having not in three minutes—without having to turn the wheel.

*Source:Urban Institute*

Why are things in Atlanta so bad? Fingers have been pointed at our sprawl by Nobelist/Times columnist Paul Krugman (“…in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl…”) and The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien, who wrote that “Atlanta…going back to the 1970s, under-invested in public transit, because car-driving suburbanites haven’t wanted to pay for something they think only poor blacks would use (to come, they fear, to their lily-white cul-de-sacs).”

The Harvard/Berkeley researchers noted that they ruled out race as a major factor in income mobility by comparing overall mobility with stats for predominantly white areas. Poor people, whether white or black, tended to stay poor from generation to generation; wealthier people stayed wealthier. (The Times’ David Leonhardt has a nuanced commentary on these complexities.)

The researchers did note however, that areas segregated by race and income tended to have lower mobility. So did areas with lower percentages of middle-class residents. Concentrated poverty may keep people poor; having a lot of rich people, on the other hand, doesn’t spread the wealth.

There’s no question that the literal lack of mobility in metro Atlanta makes it harder for people to rise out of poverty. If you’re stranded in Clayton County with no access to transportation, it doesn’t help you if stores in Lenox are hiring. And there’s no question—just look at the map below—that the South’s racial legacy contributes to our regional economic health, or lack thereof.

But here’s another important factor: education. The researchers noted:

The quality of the K-12 school system also appears to be correlated with mobility: areas with higher test scores (controlling for income levels), lower dropout rates, and higher spending per student in schools had higher rates of upward mobility.

The South as a whole has historically invested less in education. Atlanta’s no exception. In the metro area, we’ve got the APS cheaters, school board drama in DeKalb County, and scandalously low graduation rates. And those are just this year’s big stories.

Mapping Mobility

Mapping Mobility: The darker red the area, the lower the probability of upward mobility.
Courtesy: The Equality of Opportunity Project