Atlanta needs collective action to gain greater economic opportunity

By Maria Saporta

The struggle continues.

Two different Sundays in two different churches reinforced the fact that we still have so much more work to do to make sure that Atlanta is a place where everyone can thrive.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Sept. 15 invited Raphael Bostic, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, to talk about income inequality. The statistics Bostic shared were sobering – nationally and locally.

St. Luke’s Rev. Ed Bacon and Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic talk about income inequality (Photo by Maria Saporta)

But what was even more sobering was the realization that we as a community have not adequately responded to the challenges before us.

That brings me to the second church and the second Sunday. West Hunter Baptist Church in the West End invited the community on Sept. 22 to honor Atlanta civil rights leader Juanita Abernathy, who had passed away 10 days earlier.

The program at the visitation included a video of Abernathy reflecting on her life, her marriage to Ralph David Abernathy, who stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

West Hunter Baptist Church was the site of the visitation for the late Juanita Abernathy, who appeared in a video reflecting on her life (Photo by Maria Saporta)

In the video, Juanita Abernathy spoke of her work for equality, integration, justice and opportunity over six decades. She always looked out for those less fortunate. And as a member of MARTA’s board from 2001 to 2017, she was always a strong advocate for expanding public transportation in Atlanta.

So the two Sundays served as bookends for me.

Bostic drove home the point about the growing income inequalities that exist in the United States. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the top 1 percent of Americans held 67 percent the wealth in the United States in 2017. By 2021, that top 1 percent is expected to grow to 71 percent. The wealthy are getting wealthier while the economic pie is shrinking for everyone else.

Bostic then shared local statistics.

“Atlanta does not fare well in social and economic mobility – the ability to be economically mobile so that you end up in a more successful space,” Bostic said. “The likelihood is that a child born into poverty will remain there.”

He quoted from a Harvard University study on economic mobility in the top 50 cities in the United States.

“We were 49th and Charlotte was 50th,” Bostic said. “But Charlotte is actively trying to change the outcome.”

Older public bus in front of West Hunter Baptist Church (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Economic mobility is an issue throughout the country, and “nobody is great at this,” Bostic said. “If you don’t give attention to this, it will not change.”

The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has made the issue of income inequality one of its top three priorities. The more people who can improve their economic mobility, the better Atlanta’s economy will be.

“I think there are pockets in Atlanta that are aware, but here it has not galvanized into collective action,” Bostic said.

By comparison, when Charlotte was ranked 50th in the country, the region convened the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force that released its findings in March 2017. The report provided a set of 21 strategies and recommendations for how Charlotte could improve the upward mobility of its citizens.

Just this March, Michael Marsicano, president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, compared Charlotte’s challenge to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe in World War II.

It is fair to say there hasn’t been a similar call to action in metro Atlanta.

Dealing with these issues is not new. In the video, Abernathy spoke about how important it was to integrate Atlanta’s school system in the 1960s.

She spoke about sending her children to the all-white elementary school – Spring Street– in 1966 – along with the children of Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr.

My birthday party on Sept. 10, 1967 at the Biltmore Hotel pool. Juandalynn Abernathy, Yolanda King and me

That’s how I got to know Juandalynn and her sister, Donzaleigh, as well as Yolanda King, who became one of my closest friends.

At the visitation, I was able to see and hug Juandalynn and Donzaleigh. It was hard to believe we had not seen each other for nearly 50 years. Juandalynn lives in Germany, and Donzaleigh lives in California. Mrs. Abernathy used to always give me updates on her daughters when I would see her in the community or at MARTA board meetings.

As Bostic reminded us, the issues of economic opportunity and equality that Mrs. Abernathy had fought for all her life are still ever present in Atlanta.

Isn’t it time for us to adopt a Marshall Plan – not just for housing affordability – but for upward economic mobility? Can we galvanize metro Atlanta to be a region for all? Can we get all the leaders and organizations on deck to really tackle how we can improve the quality of life and economic opportunity for everyone in our region?

Let’s rally behind the spirit of  Juanita Abernathy and all the civil rights activists who devoted their lives to the cause. We can do this.

A picture of Ralph David Abernathy, Juanita Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta King inside the historic bus (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

An old and new public transit buses symbolize how the struggle continues (Photo by Maria Saporta)

A photo of Juanita Abernathy was on display at the visitation on Sunday (Kelly Jordan’s photo of the photo)

 

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

3 replies
  1. Avatar
    Steve Hagen says:

    Yes, and Mayor Pete is proposing his Marshall Plan!!

    But beyond inequalities we as a country and world economy face a HUGE challenge recently addressed by the Prime Minister of NZ Arden and Greta Thunberg. Corporations are the masters of greed but they do it not just for themselves. Pension funds, universities, many other groups and individuals demand constant growth at any cost. Collectively we must achieve far smarter ways of living and sharing. I will leave it there….Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Christopher Johnston says:

    Maria, there has never been "a place where everyone can thrive", and there never will be. That goal is like Garrison Keillor's fictitious Lake Woebegon, "…where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."
    Please focus on reality.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Steve Saenz says:

    Thank you for raising awareness, Maria. As always, you have given your readers something important to think about. One of the biggest challenges we face as a City and as a Nation is that our attention is being pulled in so many directions. There is so much coming at us, it is difficult to stay focused. Another challenge is that there is a large knowledge gap about most issues, especially highly complex ones like economic mobility. We lack a shared understanding, which is compounded by the fact that there is so much dis/misinformation out there.

    Those interested in addressing this important issue might look at what the Gartes Foundation is doing in the area of economic mobility and opportunity. The link below will allow you to review their strategy and focus areas >>>

    https://www.gatesfoundation.org/What-We-Do/US-Program/Economic-Mobility-and-OpportunityReport

    Reply

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