By Saba Long
A new study showcasing the possibility of upward mobility in America’s 50 largest cities is stirring much debate nationally about the health and wealth of our metropolitan economies. Atlanta was ranked dead last, with Charlotte just above us in 49th place.
In fact, according to the economists at Harvard and Berkeley who performed the research, Southern states hold the least amount of promise for a child raised in the bottom 5 percent income percentile to rise to the top five.
The top five percentile earn roughly $188,000 annually.
Yes, there is a fundamental problem that someone born into poverty has a 4 percent chance of earning a salary of someone born into a high earning family. However, the larger point of inquiry is the measures our school boards and local and state officials are taking to ensure that a young person has the tools necessary to solidly land in the top half or the top 25 percent.
The Great Recession has knocked a few rungs off the ladder towards the American Dream. We’ve seen it here in Georgia with the downward spiral and anemic growth of the construction and real estate market, the proliferation of reliance on food stamps by working families and the number of unemployed and underemployed citizens of all ages.
Yes, the region is heavily recruiting Fortune 1000s and hip tech startups – and that is fantastic. However, what are we also doing to provide job readiness training in high schools and colleges across metro Atlanta? It’s no surprise we rank in the bottom percentile not only for equitable opportunities for earning advancement, but we are also in the bottom for education and combined home and transportation affordability.
Surely the corollary is obvious. If our education systems are weak and families are spending a bulk of the household income on lodging and travel, it poses a problem in the development of the working and middle class.
To be sure, equality of opportunity is an issue. What this study shows is a need to strengthen the working and middle class as we grow older. The Economist recently noted that private-sector employment is closing in on its pre-recession peak, yet real household incomes remain 5 percent lower than in 2005. Since then, the price of a gallon of gas has doubled and a round-trip on MARTA has increased by $1.50.
Earlier this year President Barack Obama urged Congress to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 hourly to $9.00. Partisan bickering has run that idea into the ground. Additionally as a result of gridlock in Washington, D.C., federal college loan interest rates doubled on July 1 of this year — again, another blow to the working and middle class.
These facts and figures don’t come as a surprise. Yet we do not hold our elected leaders in Washington, D.C. and under our respective Gold Domes accountable. In primary school, we are taught to work together for a shared outcome. However, the new political game is akin to the penultimate chariot race in Ben-Hur — try to kill your opponent even if it means your death as well.
So here we are in the bottom of yet another benchmark of success. Equality of opportunity isn’t a partisan problem or an urban or suburban problem — it’s a human problem. And it’s one we cannot ignore because it will lead to the proverbial death of our local and state economy.