By Maria Saporta
The growing inequality among the rich and the poor is becoming the issue of our times — in the City of Atlanta, our region, our state, our nation and our world.
It’s a problem that we must face — once and for all.
A new study by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution captured headlines last week when it disclosed that Atlanta is the most unequal city between rich and poor among the top 50 cities in the United States.
Frankly, I always have had problems with studies that compare the City of Atlanta — which represents only 10 percent of the region’s population (about 500,000 out of 5 million residents) to cities like Houston — which represents more than a third of its region’s population (2.1 million of 5.9 million).
It is not surprising that when one looks at a smaller piece of a pie, the numbers might skew in a certain direction — that the urban area of a city will be where the poorest and the richest people will live.
That is not a new phenomenon to Atlanta. In fact, it has been a trend that has been gaining steam for 50 years since the decades of white flight to the suburbs and concentrated public housing in the city’s core.
Back in the early 1990s, a group of Atlanta leaders sounded the alarm. The City of Atlanta had the highest per-capita concentration of public housing units than any city in the country — generating a tremendous demand for expensive social services.
At the same time, a large share of the middle-class population had left the city for the suburbs — looking for “safe” neighborhoods and good public schools.
Richer families, especially those who could afford private schools, often had the option to live inside the city limits. And so the great divide in incomes began to grow.
Then a new wave of development entered the scene in the mid-1990s. The Atlanta Housing Authority became the national model for demolishing the traditional public housing projects and replacing them with mixed-income communities where families living in subsidized units would live next door to families paying market rents.
The idea was two-fold. Eliminate pockets of poverty where families are stuck for generations, and provide housing options for middle-class residents.
Since 1994, the Atlanta Housing Authority has torn down all of its traditional public housing projects except for its elderly high rises.
It would seem as though that significant development would have narrowed the gap between Atlanta’s rich and poor. But according to the latest Brookings’ study, that gap has only widened in the past five years.
So that reminded me of one of Atlanta’s greatest missed opportunities.
Right after the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the most powerful businessman in Atlanta of the day — Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta — called on the city’s leaders to develop a post-Olympics plan to keep Atlanta’s economy moving after the world had left town.
All the top business leaders, working with then Mayor Bill Campbell, formed the Atlanta Renaissance Program which put together an ambitious plan to catapult Atlanta through the next decade and beyond.
The goal? Bring back a thriving middle-class to the City of Atlanta.
The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and the city’s COO Byron Marshall ably set out the agenda — attract both black and white middle-class residents to the city and help graduate low-income residents to the ranks of the middle class.
The report suggested several initiatives that Atlanta could adopt to stimulate middle-class development — and here I’m quoting from a column I wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997.
* Create middle-income housing by assisting developers in assembling land and streamlining the zoning and permitting process; create financial incentives to attract middle-income development; create incentives to attract middle-income homeowners; establish a city agency to work on this project, neighborhood by neighborhood; and reconfigure Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit system to help in the redevelopment process.
* Improve public education by supporting the Atlanta Board of Education’s efforts and by linking school improvements with neighborhood revitalization.
* Reduce crime by increasing street patrols, implementing community policing programs and ensuring appropriate support from the courts.
* Attack poverty by continuing to support programs for job training and assistance for single mothers.
* Provide better access through public transportation to jobs throughout the metro area; increase the use of rent vouchers so poor people can lease apartments closer to available jobs; continue rebuilding Atlanta’s public housing.
* Attract and grow business in the city by having an organization like a chamber of commerce dedicated to bringing jobs and growing companies inside the city limits; energize the city’s new super-development agency to help target companies and develop incentive packages; and refocus the economic development marketing efforts of the Atlanta Empowerment Zone.
Then the report almost took a foreboding tone.
“The city and community leaders need to decide whether they have the energy and the will to tackle the opportunity of building middle-income residents in Atlanta,” the report stated. “The choice of which of many possible initiatives should be launched or energized is very much up to those leaders, based on their sense of what would be impactful and achievable.”
A few months later, once he had won re-election, Mayor Campbell disbanded the Atlanta Renaissance Program and let the report (with its recommendations to add between 50,000 to 70,000 middle-class residents to the city along with 25,000 affordable housing units in 10 years) sit on a shelf.
The city’s COO, Byron Marshall, who had wanted to be put in charge of implementing the Atlanta Renaissance Program initiatives, was snubbed by Campbell. So Marshall, a true public servant, left the city for greener pastures. Today, he is the chief administrative officer of the City of Richmond, Va.
Fast forward to today, and we find that the issues of income inequality are complex and widespread. They are not limited to the City of Atlanta but are issues facing the globe.
Just last week, Howard Buffett — whose father is one of the richest men in the world — was in Atlanta as part of a Morehouse College/Andrew Young Foundation program on his book: “Forty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.”
I asked Buffett, who has dedicated much of his life to tackling extreme poverty in different parts of the world, about what can be done to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
“That’s the balancing act between capitalism and communism,” said Buffett, who said he favored capitalism along with “benevolent government.” Then addressing the students at Morehouse, Buffett said: “Be involved in your political system.”
Yes there are huge faults in our political system, and things don’t seem to be getting better, Buffett acknowledged.
“The only way that the gap continues to grow in the wrong direction, and the gap is in the wrong direction, is you allow for it to happen through the political process,” Buffett said. “If we have a system going in the wrong direction, we need to change it through political involvement.”
It takes me back to 1997. What if we had actually implemented a plan to create a vibrant middle-class in Atlanta? Would Brookings still have declared Atlanta to have the greatest gap among the rich and poor among the major cities in the United States?
Unfortunately, we’ll never know.