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Guest Column

Atlanta’s income gap problem rooted in poverty, not in a lack of middle-class

By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS, a Georgia Tech professor of architecture and planning who also served as the city of Atlanta’s commissioner of planning, development and neighborhood conservation from 1996 to 2002

In a recent column, Maria Saporta attributed Atlanta’s worst-in-class rankings for income disparity and social immobility to the post-Olympic period, which she characterized as one of “Atlanta’s Greatest Missed Opportunities.”

While I hesitate to challenge Maria’s wisdom, I must disagree with her conclusions both about why Atlanta has such income disparity and social immobility and with her characterization of the post-Olympic period as a missed opportunity.

Taking the latter first, she references the Renaissance Policy Board, which was convened by Mayor Bill Campbell and chaired by Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta to plan out Atlanta’s post-Olympic priorities and strategies.

Among others, its goals included attracting the middle class into the city, stimulating population growth, new business investment, reducing crime, improving public education, attacking poverty, rebuilding public housing and improving transit access to jobs and services.

She laments that these recommendations were ignored, with the plan “sitting on a shelf.” In many key aspects, her laments are unwarranted, as the plan helped set the course for both public and private initiatives to achieve progress that has visibly and substantively transformed many parts of Atlanta.

I’ll comment on the Renaissance Policy group’s goals and the City’s progress on achieving them. Then I’ll offer an alternate theory as to why we sit at the top of the disparity list and the bottom of the social advancement list.

Specifically, these Renaissance Policy Board’s goals set and met included:

Following 25 years of decline, population and investment in the city marked significant upticks in the post-Olympic years. Over the 10 years following the Olympics, 40,000 more people lived in Atlanta. Most of that growth was in the middle income category called for in the Renaissance report. Providing 25,000 housing units in 10 years for people in the $75,000 income range seemed daunting in 1997.

Yet that goal was achieved in just six years. In the five years following the Olympics, 42 new companies located in Atlanta, adding over 6,000 new jobs. And, as is widely noted, the Olympic era overhaul and production of the Atlanta Housing Authority, while controversial for some, has been remarkable in achieving mostly stable mixed-income communities. And crime decreased.

Mike Dobbins

Mike Dobbins

This growth and positive change was not accidental. Loosely following the Renaissance Policy Board’s suggestions, It was incented by: major rezoning initiatives,  public improvement commitments carrying forward from Olympic infrastructure investments,

the establishment of multiple Tax Allocation Districts, the use of Livable Centers Initiative and other funds to achieve major new streetscape and park frameworks and major new mixed-use, mixed-income developments — Atlantic Station, Midtown, and Lindbergh to name three.

These were achievements where the city government and private partners supported each other to indeed take advantage of the Olympic opportunity. In short, the Renaissance effort did not “sit on a shelf,” but in useful ways guided what some have characterized as a turnaround for the City of Atlanta.

Now, there have been and still are failings, and here is where we get into disagreement over the cause of disparity/immobility. Attacking poverty as a goal has gone nowhere – the unemployment rates have remained more of less the same since the Olympics. Harking back to the Renaissance policy goals, public education has been and is an ongoing disappointment.

As presently structured, public education is not a responsibility of the municipal government or the private sector. The Metro Atlanta Chamber tried to improve the situation, unsuccessfully and probably misguidedly.

Joint public-private job training programs have not placed nearly enough of the unemployed and lowest wealth citizens into jobs. Effective poverty reduction needs to start with jobs, tailoring work to the capabilities of the unemployed instead of trying to fit people to jobs for which they aren’t prepared.

Similarly, access to jobs has been a major failing. Instead of shaping a transit system to get people to where the jobs and services are concentrated, the City committed three quarters of its city-wide TAD funding capacity to BeltLine transit. This program was never about meeting these access needs, especially for lower income transit-dependent people.

Recently, though, the program is shifting its focus to recognize need as a co-driver of its mission with its first phase streetcar and proposed Downtown/Midtown-centered extensions serving concentrations of daily destinations. Regrettably, most of the lines serving these concentrations are located outside of BeltLine TAD boundaries, making them difficult to fund.

Maria suggests in her column that the cause of our dismal rankings on the equity scale is failure to meet the Renaissance Policy group’s goal of attracting the middle class. In fact we have met and exceeded that goal.

What our traditional political and private leadership hasn’t done, and isn’t doing, is to notice the low income, unemployed, mostly minority populations who have been here for decades, mostly in the same locations. The inequality gap is between the rich and the poor, not between the rich and middle class, nor the middle class and the poor,

Now, at a time when income disparity and social immobility are beginning to worry the rich as possible precursors to instability – certainly not in their interest – in Atlanta we have the opportunities to climb out the hole we keep digging.

Five billion dollars’ worth of projects are in the planning and implementation stage. All of these involve major public investment and government approval requirements, yet none of them are directing any appreciable effort to train, hire, or otherwise meet the needs of the communities where the bottom end of our disparity resides.  The big projects are the BeltLine, Fort McPherson, the Falcons stadium, and the Multimodal Passenger Terminal, and there are a lot of smaller ones.

Setting aside the occasional encouraging words about addressing the needs or aspirations of those locked into poverty and unemployment, the public/private partners of these projects have consistently opposed any binding commitments to actually do anything about it.

While the Atlanta City Council reluctantly did adopt community benefit language in the BeltLine TAD legislation, little of it has been directed toward meeting the needs of the thousands of low wealth citizens through which it passes.

Recently, the City Council failed to adopt community benefit agreement language in its legislation committing $200 million, and potentially as much as $900 million, of hotel-motel tax proceeds to the Falcons stadium deal.

The redevelopment of Fort McPherson, still treading water, has persistently resisted incorporating community-serving provisions into its planning process. And the Multimodal Passenger Terminal project, still down the road, does not yet have meeting low wealth community needs on its radar.

Income disparity and social immobility are Atlanta’s biggest problem, our national disgrace, whether we recognize it or try to keep it invisible. Our traditional way of doing things and the private and political leadership that steers the process, is wasting a fifth of the city’s population.

These people are resources with capabilities and the desire to improve their quality of life. This is an economic and sustainability issue, not just one of morality, ethics or philosophy.

Why shouldn’t we – Renaissance Policy Board style – set a goal of reducing the wealth gap by 15 percent and improving our social mobility performance by 15 percent over the next 10 years?

We could again outstrip our competition cities, attacking poverty and increasing our productivity at the same time. With all these projects underway, if we do not address poverty and improve our social mobility, then we truly will experience our “greatest missed opportunity.”


  1. Burroughston Broch March 10, 2014 7:50 am

    Prof. Dobbins, please check your facts before writing.
    You stated, “Over the 10 years following the Olympics, 40,000 more people lived in Atlanta.”
    In fact, the City’s population dropped from 497,000 in 1970 to 394,000 in 1990, then rose to 416,000 in 2000 and 420,000 in 2010. So, the population gain over the 10 years following the Olympics was less than 22,000. The City’s population is still 15% lower than in 1970.Report

  2. Burroughston Broch March 10, 2014 7:53 am

    Another way to lower the City’s wealth gap is for the wealthy to move elsewhere. But that method has already been tried in Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and we can see the results.
    Perhaps a wealth gap is not so bad a thing?Report

  3. atlman March 10, 2014 8:42 am

    Burroughston Broch 
    The latest population estimate (from 2012) is that the city’s population is now 443,000. Atlanta population growth slowed because of the great recession, as it did all over the metro area. Now that job growth, housing and construction are picking back up again, the population increase is also. Atlanta is certainly over 450,000 by now, and will surpass 500,000 by the next census (when Mary Norwood will be mayor), because by then the new housing developments in midtown (redevelopment of the old Sears Building and a bunch of nearby areas into condos and townhomes) and around the Beltline will have residents. That will result in a lot of gentrification, but the old guard political establishment that complained about such things is long gone; they pretty much lost their power structure when the decision was made to dismantle Atlanta’s massive public housing system during the Bill Campbell administration in favor of using section 8 to relocate as many of them out of the city as possible and with Reed significantly increasing the size and presence of the police force, with the resulting drop in crime (the rates are lower than they were in the 1970s) making large swaths of the city safe for the hipsters that are now taking advantage. 
    Of course, the vast majority of the metro area will still live in the suburbs. But Atlanta surpassing the half-million mark in population within the next 5 years won’t be anything to sneeze at either. And yes, Mary Norwood’s election will only accelerate the population growth. As Norwood has learned from hear defeat at the hands of Kasim Reed 5 years ago and as a result no longer represents the Mitch Skandalakis/Jan Jones/Ed Lindsey constituency, her tenure will be as beneficial for the city as Reed’s.Report

  4. Burroughston Broch March 10, 2014 10:35 am

    You are spouting hopes and I am quoting facts. Regardless of your hopes, the article’s facts are incorrect in this respect.
    Regarding the City’s population, the present Mayor and the Metro Chamber loudly proclaimed prior to the 2010 Census that the City had 500,000 residents. The official count was only 420,000, whereupon the Mayor loudly threatened the Census Bureau. You haven’t heard much about it lately, have you? That’s because it was all talk and no action.
    We’ll see what 2020 brings and not rely on hopes and rhetoric. The City will have to have over 496,000 residents then just to make up the losses since 1970.Report

  5. Warnin2U March 12, 2014 9:28 am

    You can dress up a pig but it’s still a pig!  The reason for the disparity is the fact that low income housing clusters underachievers in pockets and creates mini society’s where societal expectations are minimal.  Check it out, check the literacy rates, reading levels, disability claims, food-stamp usage, etc. and you will find that “the state” has created a mini world in which education and employment are not valued.  In fact, achievement, is seen as a challenge to community standards.  If you want to cure the problem then tear down the projects, bulldoze the slums and disperse the population.  Do not allow these people to cluster and recreate their slums and maintain their slum society.  The fact that the gap has increased is more due to natural growth of the working minority out of poverty coupled with the fact that the internet now allows all to work much more efficiently, which lowers overhead and allows more earned revenue to become profit.  Think for a minute how many earn a living building, fixing, providing services for those with disposable income.  You go an level the income among all, then allow these jobs disappear, making the ranks of the poor even larger, but now there is no one to pay for all the benefits provided by the government.Report

  6. atlman March 12, 2014 12:16 pm

    Burroughston Broch

    Please document the claim that the mayor and the metro chamber claimed that Atlanta had surpassed 500,000 residents. I follow the Atlanta population issue in various media and information channels, and I have no idea where such a claim would have been made. Claiming that Atlanta had experienced such significant population growth right in the middle of a devastating recession that had unemployment rates in the city at well over 11% would have been absolutely ridiculous. So post a link to prove that the Mayor or the chamber ever at any time claimed that the city population was over 500,000. I do not believe that such a link exists.
    Incidentally, I live in the city, right downtown. In 2010, there was absolutely nothing going on. No new construction projects on housing or businesses, just a bunch of empty, abandoned projects. But starting last year and accelerating this year, there has been LOTS of construction activity on townhomes and businesses, especially where I live. And where I thought that the Beltline was a fiasco back then, this year the Beltline parks near where I live have been filled to the brim with families and children skating and biking, and most of them are not in the demographic that you would associate with downtown Atlanta if you know what I mean … this was not the Freaknik crowd.
    So there are your “facts” (from someone who simply hates the people who live in the city and who they choose to elect … still waiting on you to spout the same invective against the machinations that Cobb County is pulling with the Braves to line their pockets … you haven’t and you won’t) which are spurious and there are my FACTS and what I see going on whenever I drive home from work and whenever I take my kids to the parks and the grocery store.
    I know that your ilk hates the idea that a city with Atlanta’s demographic and leadership can possibly turn out to be anything but a fiasco mess, but Atlanta has never been Detroit or Chicago, even during the 1980s and early 90s when the city leadership was at its total worst, and it never will be. And as everyone but the city-bashers knows – Mayor Reed stated so himself as far back as 2010 (which by the way is when he was first elected … oh yeah, you did know that Shirley Franklin was mayor in 2010, not Reed right, but those are your facts right … Reed was just taking office in 2010 coming over from the legislature and would have had NO BASIS for making claims about the population as far as I can tell, but hey you can fix that by providing a link to document your claims) – the city demographics are changing anyway. So by the next census not only will Atlanta have surpassed 500,000, but it will not even be majority black. Reed predicted that he would be Atlanta’s last black mayor. The same hipster demographic that Spike Lee launched profane slurs against recently are making huge positive changes to the city, which is why Reed prioritized the Beltline and addressing the infrastructure backlog over the ponying up a billion bucks to pacify the Braves (whose patrons are, well, mostly your demographic). That’s why I stated that Mary Norwood – who is positioning herself already after blowing it last time – will be the next mayor, and at no point did I say that it was a bad thing (assuming that Norwood is actually qualified to be mayor … I would prefer Karen Handel myself since your good ole boy contingent doesn’t see the benefit to electing her as governor or mayor, and would rather stick with incompetent pocket-liners and grafters like Perdue and Deal). So obviously my views on the city aren’t tainted by who lives there and who leads it, unlike you.
    Hey, but got any more facts about what “the current mayor” was doing back when he wasn’t even mayor yet? Or about how the construction projects that I pass by every day aren’t really happening?Report

  7. Burroughston Broch March 16, 2014 2:17 am

    Here is the Atlanta Regional Commission’s 2009 estimate of 480,700 in the City: http://atlantaregional.com/File%20Library/Info%20Center/Newsletters/Regional%20Snapshots/Population/RS_PopNHousing_Feb2010.pdf.
    Here’s an AJC article from 2011 stating the Census Bureau’s own 2009 estimate (no longer available on line) was 540,000: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/census-shock-result-of-flawed-estimates/nQszH/.Report

  8. bcatl March 21, 2014 9:43 am

    atlman Burroughston Broch
    While I share your sentiment in many of the things you discussed you are wrong regarding the population estimate.  The Chamber and Mayor Reed both touted the 2009 estimates which put Atlanta at 541,000 people.  Those estimates are done locally, so the onus is on the local officials who used a different method to calculate estimated population than the census.  The city even went as far as hiring a consulting firm to challenge the 2010 estimate and the report is made public, so yes the City did dispute it and assumed their local calculations were correct.
    Additionally the increase in population between 2000 and 2010 was less than 3,600 people within the city.  So assuming that the next 10 years will bring 80,000 people is a lofty assumption.  Your assumption that the population jumped by 30,000 in the past 2 years is also rather absurd, and that latest 2012 estimate was done in the same method that over shot our population estimates by more than 110,000 people between 2009 and 2010.  Below is the documentation that you were requesting, and is just one of many pieces including a full story by the AJC that even went as far as interviewing Reed and other city and county officials on their disagreement with the 2010 Census.

  9. Chris Murphy April 14, 2014 7:19 am

    The posters below don’t have as many ‘facts’ as they’d like to believe.  The City – and the Census Bureau- did claim growth to over 500,000, *before* the 2010 Census.  (In non-census years, the Bureau does estimates, and those numbers use statistics like building starts, construction permits, etc. to gauge growth or loss.)  While there was a lot of building of condo’s and other middle-income and above housing, the mortgage crisis was claiming huge swaths of south Atlanta, particularly SW ATL, which lost almost 20% of its population.  And a lot of those condo’s and townhomes, etc. were never completed, or stayed unoccupied and otherwise financially encumbered for years.

    So the end result was that the City did gain a large # of middle income and above residents downtown and midtown, but lost other middle- and lower-middle income residents in droves in other (read: mainly minority) areas.  In addition, with the collapse of the construction industry, Hispanics fled in huge numbers- and the Bureau never had a good handle on their numbers to begin with.

    Why different projects have or have not been taken on are past my pay grade: I don’t personally really know why any other human does anything.  But I do know the engine of past growth stopped: the movement of mainly corporate regional or national offices to the city, and the slowdown of ‘high-tech’ industry over all here (particularly since the “dot.com crash”).  In other words, people used to be transferred here in large numbers; now most (seem) to come here because there was no work where they were, and a bigger city represents more opportunity, to some.  And the city, like the national economy, has been slow to turn its wheels as business investment has been spotty.Report


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