Creating Access to Opportunity in One of America’s Inequality Hotspots

December 8, 2016

Atlanta is tackling one of America’s toughest inclusive growth challenges: the suburbanization of poverty. As its public transit system struggles to serve low-income workers living further from jobs, civic advocates are empowering the public to promote change using open data.

This post was produced in partnership with News Deeply.

In the heart of the American South, Atlanta is dealing with one of the nation’s worst income inequality problems. In this sprawling metro area home to more than five million people, the top five percent of residents earn 17.5 times more income than the bottom 20 percent of workers. The Brookings Institution ranks it the third-worst U.S. city for income inequality, after two years in the number one spot.

For those on the bottom of the ladder, it is a tough place to get ahead. Research by the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that it has the worst social mobility odds in the nation: only four percent of children who grow up in the bottom fifth of households in Atlanta are likely to rise to the top of the income charts by adulthood. Minority families are especially disadvantaged: 94 percent of white children live in low-poverty neighborhoods, but only 44 percent of Atlanta’s African American children do.

As Atlanta works to change that gap, it is dealing with a major challenge cities across the United States are facing: the suburbanization of poverty.

From 2000 to 2011, poverty rates in Atlanta’s suburbs increased by 159 percent, compared to an 11 percent increase within the urban center, as gentrification brought high-priced housing to the city center. Today, 88 percent of metro Atlanta’s poor live outside city limits, moving to seek affordable housing that gets cheaper the further out from the city they go.

This shift poses a major challenge for inclusive growth. Forty percent of low and moderate-wage workers live in the southern part of metro Atlanta, but 75 percent of the jobs for which they qualify are located in the more prosperous northern region, the Atlanta Regional Commission reports. Because many of the suburbs that are now low-income were previously bedroom communities for higher-wage households, they lack the social services and public transport networks newer residents need – leaving many of metro Atlanta’s residents cut off from access to jobs, education and opportunity.

The Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth brought together civic leaders in Atlanta to discuss the approaches they are taking to build shared prosperity throughout the region. Hosted in partnership with the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University and the Center for Civic Innovation, the event was part of the Center’s multi-city U.S. tour, On the Frontlines of Inclusive Growth.

In many ways, Atlanta’s economy is thriving. This year, the metro region was predicted to produce a 2.7% year-over-year job creation rate, nearly twice the national rate. This obscures lack of access to employment for major sectors of society, however, especially African American workers, who make up more than half of the city’s residents but have an unemployment rate nearly four times higher than that of white workers.

“We’ve built an economy that is focused on attracting talent, but we’re not doing a lot about making sure that the people who are already here have a chance to benefit from the economic development that is occurring in places around our city,” said Nathaniel Smith, founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, a non-profit organization that promotes development that includes minorities and low-wage workers.

The region’s transit system has not kept pace with residents’ needs as poverty has shifted from the city to the suburbs. Research by the TransFormation Alliance, an Atlanta transit advocacy collaborative, found that 80 percent of households spend 45 percent of their income on housing and transportation. Not only is Atlanta’s bus and train network, MARTA, the most expensive in the U.S., only about one in five jobs can be reached with a transit trip that takes less than 90 minutes.

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Duriya Farooqui of the Atlanta Committee for Progress talks about barriers to social mobility in Atlanta. (Photo credit: Beeck Center)

“Economic access comes with the ability to get to work,” said Duriya Farooqui, executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, a public-private partnership that brings together corporate leaders to collaborate on the city’s social and economic development issues. A groundbreaking 2015 study by economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren found that commuting time is the single most powerful factor affecting upward mobility, more so than even school test scores.

“If a single mom living in Duluth [suburban Atlanta] interviews for a job at Coca-Cola corporate headquarters, but she can’t get child care for 13 hours because it takes two hours to get there, nine hours to work and then two hours to get back home, what does that mean for economic access?” Farooqui said. “It means that economic access doesn’t exist.”

To make sure that the transportation, jobs and housing mismatch does not entrench poverty, Atlanta civic leaders are working to empower residents and organizations with easy-to-use data tools they can use for advocacy – an approach open data innovators in Chicago and New York are taking as well.

Neighborhood Nexus aims to create a data-driven decision-making culture in Atlanta, empowering residents and organizations to identify paths for producing equitable growth in their own communities. It provides up-to-date neighborhood-level data and mapping tools that enable users to do things like map area demographics, available services and the gaps that may exist. Free training helps non-technologists harness the power of data science.

A recent survey Neighborhood Nexus helped conduct found that Atlanta residents ranked transport as the metro region’s biggest issue, and 44% want to expand public transit. Civic advocates pushing for those changes can use the data resources on the site to design possible solutions.

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Nathaniel Smith and Mike Carnathan discuss inequality in Atlanta. (Photo Credit: Beeck Center)

“Data will never provide the final answer, but once you understand a system, you have options: change it around the margins, or envision a whole new system,” said Mike Carnathan, one of the tool’s founders. “It’s using data as a flashlight – not as a hammer.”

Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) created the Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas to provide the public with timely, accurate data about eight key areas of community wellbeing, including housing, economic development and transportation. Nearly 200 maps of metro Atlanta’s 28 counties enable community advocates to show policymakers, for example, exactly where households without cars cluster – and to what extent train or bus routes serve them.

“If you look at a municipal budget, in actuality what you’re looking at is a statement of values,” said Smith. “If you look at communities that have been disinvested in, someone is making a value statement about the people who live in those communities.”

The majority of Atlanta’s African American residents live in suburbs – 87 percent by 2010, rising from 79 percent in 2000 – but it is those areas that lack sufficient train and bus connections. An advocacy campaign PSE helped lead brought about a win for a voter-approved sales tax increase in 2014 to restore MARTA connections to Clayton County, a black majority suburb with one of the state’s highest unemployment rates that had had to shut down service in 2010 due to budget shortfalls. “I got two things to say,” resident Penny Seadre told a local news site when she rode one of the first new bus routes that started in March 2015, replacing her previous 30-minute walk to work. “‘Thank you, God,’ and ‘Thank you, MARTA.’”

“Economic inclusion is not something that you can ignore,” said Farooqui. “At best you may prosper in spite of it, but you are never going to reach your full potential as a community, as a people, as a region or as a city that stands shoulder to shoulder with other cities around the world that are paving the path forward.”

Featured Photo Credit: Getty Images

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