Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Upward Mobility

Although Atlanta is one of America’s most affluent metropolitan areas, according to a July 22, 2013 article in the New York Times, it is also one of the most physically divided by income.  Low-income neighborhoods "often stretch for miles, with rows of houses and low-slung apartments, interrupted by the occasional strip mall, and lacking much in the way of good-paying jobs."  This geography makes Atlanta one of the metropolitan areas where it is most difficult for lower-income households to rise into the middle class and beyond.

Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, with the odds notably lower in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Columbus.  By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains, and West, including New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and large swaths of California and Minnesota.

Economists have found that a smaller percentage of people escape childhood poverty in the United States than in several other rich countries, including Canada, Australia, France, Germany and Japan.  Yet the parts of this country with the highest mobility rates, like Seattle, have rates roughly as high as those in Denmark and Norway, two countries at the top of the international mobility rankings. In Atlanta, by comparison, upward mobility appears to be substantially lower than in any other rich country.

The variation does not stem simply from the fact that some areas have higher average incomes: upward mobility rates often differ sharply in areas where average income is similar, like Atlanta and Seattle.  On average, poor children in Seattle, those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution, do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children from Atlanta who grew up in the 50th percentile.

Economists are confident that the characteristics of different regions — as opposed to something inherent and unchangeable in the local residents — are helping cause the varying mobility rates.  When poor communities are segregated, everything about life is harder. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods. Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.

In Atlanta, the most common lament seems to be that concentrated poverty, extensive traffic, and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get job opportunities.  In interviews, residents reflected many of the national concerns and many of the patterns in the study.
  • A 40-year-old man who runs a local painting crew said he wished he had enough time, amid work and parenthood, to go back to school.
  • A recent graduate of a chiropractic program who has struggled to find work called herself “a loner” and said she wished she knew more people to help with her job search.
  • A father of three in Gwinnett County with a temporary job as a network engineer said that the struggle to build a better life often felt similar to “a lottery.” His job comes with no health insurance for him, his wife and his three children.
  • His wife recently left a job at a diner that required an hour’s commute by bus. She would like to find a new job with health insurance, but the family has only one car.

It's not something lacking in the people that's causing this problem.  They're not undermotivated, or content to rely on food stamps and subsidy programs, the "free stuff" that Republicans like to claim the government is handing out that keeps people in poverty.  What they need is the ability to get to the jobs.

Although not mentioned in the Times' article, Atlanta has been vehemently opposed to public transportation projects, other than widening its already vast yet still clogged highways. The existing MARTA transit system is constantly under attack and subjected to budget cuts, service cutbacks, and route reductions.  A recent transportation referendum was soundly defeated at the polls.  The only major new public transit initiative, the Beltline, can't seem to get its transit component going and has been primarily a parks and trails project for several years now.

More transit will mean less poverty, according to the economic study cited in the Times.  Less poverty, in addition to being a noble and worthy goal in and of itself, will also mean less crime, less tension, and more consumers and customers for businesses and retailers.  Frankly, it makes a city more fun to live in.  It's a good investment all around - everyone wins - yet there's no hope of a turnaround anywhere on the horizon around here.

Atlanta, it seems, is content to continue to be a third-world economy in terms of upward mobility.

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