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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.