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

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  • DarinA

    Interesting (and sad) — a census study from two years ago noted that the City of Atlanta has the highest income inequality of any major US city:

    So in the income inequality matter, the city is a microcosm of what’s happening throughout the metro. What I’d love to see is city leadership step and provide some great programs and initiatives that can serve as a template for successfully correcting the inequality metro-wide. Being on the losing end, statistically, gives us a chance to be leaders in rising up past the depths of the problem.

    Rebecca: thanks so much for carefully noting “metro” and “metro area.” There are local journalists and editors who too often write Atlanta or even “city” when referencing a stat that really concerns the metro. Much appreciated.

  • HAC Brown

    I have had opinions on this for years, decades even. It’s only now with
    these intellectual studies from valid sources that these factors are coming
    to light. The sad thing is that one day these elite clowns will pay a
    horrific price for all this. (Fareed’s G.P.S.on C.N.N.). Now, the whole country is suffering
    because of things such as this, and the whole world knows.

  • Ren

    From a transplant perspective, Atlanta is a place that is difficult to impossible to move up in, not only if you are born poor here, but if you live here period and you don’t have money already. Whether you were born here or moved here from elsewhere, if you are poor in Atlanta, you will stay poor because there are not enough job opportunities, resources are limited to non-existent, and of course transit is awful.

    Racism plays a huge role because the income gap between blacks and whites in Atlanta is HUGE! I mean HUGE! While there are blacks who do well in Atlanta, this isn’t the rule as we have been led to believe. In 2009 the average household income for whites was $86k versus $25k for blacks. Because there are so many educated blacks in Atlanta, you’d think that the income gap would be much smaller. Atlanta isn’t lacking in skilled or educated blacks at all and is boasted for having many black professionals. Then why is the income disparity so huge in a mostly black city with a large number of college-educated blacks? I’ve met several low-wage, college educated blacks in Atlanta, and also many college-educated blacks who struggle with homelessness and food security in Atlanta.

    There is no real job growth for educated professionals in Atlanta because there are very few high-paying jobs or jobs period for those with degrees. This hits blacks harder because African-Americans have to also deal with racial discrimination in an already competitive local job market. In Georgia the only major job growth is in low-wage service work (i.e. fast food, retail, customer service) with most of the jobs being created are in food service. The Georgia Dept. of Labor verifies this. So what real opportunities are there for the have-nots to get ahead when even educated professionals can’t get work in Atlanta?