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City of Atlanta’s income divide of rich and poor – it didn’t have to be this way

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.

Maria Saporta

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.



  1. atlman February 24, 2014 11:13 pm

    I am no right-winger, but this is a common fallacy of liberals and progressives (as well as those further left): top-down solutions to bottom-up problems. Atlanta’s problems cannot be solved with state (or city) planning. Atlanta’s problems are cultural, and to fix them the culture has to change. The people have to change. The idea that all problems are rooted in economics and can be addressed by government managing and allocating economic resources more equally has been disproven time and time again. Further, the fellow who originated this ideology did so in an economic and cultural context (a Europe that had just emerged from feudalism, and in some places like Russia and Germany still existed) that was entirely different from our own. 
    So the poverty problem in Atlanta isn’t a post-feudal, pre-industrial economy where a few large landowners live like kings off the backs of rural serfs and urban factory workers working 120 hours a week to keep from starving to death. If it was, then I admit that state planning would sound like a good idea. But instead, the poverty problem in Atlanta is caused primarily by an illegitimacy rate that is 60%, and in some areas of the city over 95%. Single mothers have a 63% poverty rate by national average, and in the south the single mother poverty rate is even higher. That’s why 25,000 affordable housing units in the city won’t fix anything, because a great deal of the people who would avail themselves of those units would be single mothers (including but not limited to those who use Section 8 and other assistance programs to obtain the housing). 
    No need to feign outrage at the offense against feminism that I have allegedly committed, or to claim that I am indulging in Reagan-era “welfare queen” baiting tactics. Instead, this is economic reality that is all about statistics and numbers. Atlanta has a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and a very large driver of the gap is between those who are married and those who aren’t. And that is why the old “white flight” argument is invalid too. It ignores the fact that over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of married black couples bypassed Atlanta and its single mother culture in favor of north Fulton, north DeKalb, and the suburbs (Cobb, Gwinnett, Henry, Cherokee, Hall, Fayette, Douglas). The black voting population in Cobb has doubled in the last 10 years alone, and has reached the point where the Marietta Daily Journal is now reporting that Cobb’s GOP leadership has resorted to gerrymandering their county commission districts in order to preserve their Republican supermajority. 
    And it is not merely the single mothers who live in poverty. The descendants of single mothers are also much more likely to continue the poverty cycle than their counterparts raised in two-parent homes, as they fare worse according to every single statistical indicator, including but not limited to educational performance and attainment. Again, no ideology, but statistics.
    Yes, Bill Campbell did set the city back. But things like the Atlanta Renaissance Program have been tried in lots of cities for decades and they have never worked. (Indeed, if any of them had worked, they would have been mass replicated by other cities and for that matter mandated at the federal level.) Instead, what works are measures aimed at changing the underlying negative culture. And yes, Atlanta did precisely that when they abandoned their public housing program emphasis that almost sent the city into a fatal death spiral. Even some civil rights leaders like the late Hosea Williams admitted that the attempt to uplift the city using this method nearly killed it. The only reason why Atlanta is growing again, with a slow but steady trickle of businesses, professionals (and two parent families) returning is because the housing projects are gone, and with it the accompanying culture that gave Atlanta one of the highest crime rates in the nation in the and gave birth to such wanton lawlessness as Freaknik. But the projects are gone, the culture has improved, and now the crime rate is now actually lower than it was before the white flight that everyone blames all of Atlanta’s ills on happened! Imagine that. 
    But closing down the housing projects can only do so much. Until the women (and teenage girls) of this city realize that no matter how many “strong independent woman who is capable of standing on her own” songs and movies that Hollywood pushes at them, statistically single motherhood is the path to poverty for themselves (and for their children after them) 70% of the time, the poverty gap is going to remain, even if two-parent white (and black) families move back into the city from the suburbs. (Why am I focusing on the women instead of the deadbeat dads? Simple. Single mothers purposefully, knowingly pass up responsible, respectable men and instead choose irresponsible, undesirable males to procreate with. They choose relationships with gang members, drug dealers, “aspiring athletes and musicians”, and males who have already impregnated and abandoned other females. It is part and parcel of the culture, and unfortunately Oprah Winfrey bowed to pressure and chose not to air a reality show about 10 Atlanta women who chose to have children with the same uneducated, unemployed male, because many women who are part of this culture do not wish to have the decisions that they make put on display. They would rather continue to have the onus placed on the males, or institutional racism, or the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery instead of a culture that accepts, propagates, embraces and reinforces bad choices.) 
    Unless the left faces reality in cases like these, the voters are never going to trust the left with power. Yes, Obama was elected president twice, but only because he (like Bill Clinton before him) avoided “urban issues” like the plague. But here is the reality: even a college graduate making $40,000 a year is going to be under economic duress if she is a single mother with 3 children. If Atlanta wants to make a dent in the gap between the rich and poor (if it wants to increase its middle class) then the solution is to transform those into two parent homes with household incomes of $60,000-$80,000 a year. Again, change the culture.Report

  2. Al Bartell February 25, 2014 10:54 am

    Political leadership is not going to come from our mayors anymore…keep your eye on urban congressional candidates in the year 2016….a presidential election year..stay tuned. Al Bartell.Report

  3. John Hutcheson February 25, 2014 1:46 pm

    Your logic is limited by a snapshot mentality. We need to ask why this culture has developed in order to find a way to change it. The antecedents of the culture you describe are economic, so in order to change the culture, we need to change the economic antecedents of the culture. Culture evolves from testing and retesting behaviors, some of which work and others that don’t. Culture evolves from those behaviors that are proven successful (in this case, in terms of basic survivability). Economically, we have multiple generations of people who have been excluded from full participation in the economic life of the community — the way to change that is to remove barriers to full participation — culture will change as opportunities for participation become available — a counterproductive culture is the result of lack of opportunity, powerlessness and alienation — it the lack of opportunity that must change so that alienation and powerlessness diminish. 
    Another disagreement we have has to do with the terminology you use — specifically lumping “liberal” with “progressive.” While liberals and progressives have similar objectives, liberal strategies tend to emphasize the amelioration of social ills (a Band-Aid approach, if you will), while progressives tend to focus on changing the social systems (economic and political) that result those ills. Because those that benefit from the status quo or often believe that they benefit from the status quo (usually conservatives) oppose both perspectives, they tend to lump both together. As a progressive, I can agree that the “culture” you describe is less than productive, on the other hand, the question is really how can we change the culture? We know that positive incentives are much more powerful than punishment in changing culture. If we are to successfully meld a market economy with democracy, government must ensure an environment in which a vast majority of people feel they can actualize their dreams, even if it takes several generations to do so. In order to successfully compete in a market economy we all need a little hope. In a competitive global economy, we can no longer rely upon the proverbial 20% to get the job done, we need a much higher % at full participation and, in fact, the 1% cannot continue to prosper without paving the way for more talent in the marketplace.Report

  4. RSGiolito February 25, 2014 3:58 pm

    Former Mayor Bill Campbell appointed
    me to the board of the Atlanta Housing Authority during the time in
    question. The overwhelming majority of the Authority’s
    80,000 plus tenants were single African-American women with children, many of
    whom were without jobs and had grown up in the “homes.”Conditions were dreadful.Most of the old properties were simply incapable
    of being properly maintained.The
    Authority’s staff, under the capable leadership of Renee Glover, was forced to
    develop and implement an entirely new model of public housing. There was great debate over the hard choices
    that had to be made.
    In my meetings with the tenants, it was clear that most,
    including many of the young women, desperately wanted to work.They were held back by two practical
    problems:lack of transportation and
    childcare.Few had cars, and the buses
    and trains didn’t carry you to available suburban workplaces.Many had young children.There were other issues, including inadequate
    education and exposure to a business environment, but these were the principal
    obstacles to finding and hold jobs.
    “Culture” had nothing to do with any of this.I’ve worked with poor whites, Latinos, and
    African-Americans around the country and these very practical problems are the
    same everywhere. Provide folks,
    particularly women with children, with the essential tools needed to get to and
    hold a job and they will do so.Blaming their
    “culture,” in my opinion a clear code word for race, is not only incorrect, but
    it stigmatizes whole masses of potentially productive people. Our country can no longer afford to do that.Report

  5. atlman February 25, 2014 8:19 pm

    John Hutcheson
    I am aware of the distinctions between leftist/liberal/progressive/socialist/communist. I was merely generalizing.

    antecedents of the culture you describe are economic, so in order to
    change the culture, we need to change the economic antecedents of the
    That is wrong. The illegitimacy rate among certain populations in the 1950s was below 25% when poverty rates were much higher. Now they are approaching 75% when poverty rates are much lower, and what is more the definition of poverty has changed radically (i.e. in the 1950s, being below the poverty line in many cases meant no indoor plumbing or electricity). Also, there are a great many countries in the world where the poverty rates and standards of living are far worse than ours but the illegitimacy rates are far lower.
    If any economic antecedent exists at all, it is the fact that single motherhood is now heavily subsidized (childcare, education, job training, housing, healthcare assistance) to a degree that does not exist for working poor and lower middle class married couples (see this article in the Atlantic on that topic: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/how-anti-poverty-programs-marginalize-fathers/283984/
    So even if you are correct, somehow I do not believe that this is the economic driving force that you were thinking of, particularly since you mentioned the 1% rhetoric, which while true in other respects has absolutely nothing to do with illegitimacy, which began to skyrocket and spiral out of control long before the Reagan administration.Report

  6. atlman February 25, 2014 8:44 pm

    I am sorry, but you confirmed my thesis. The overwhelming majority of the Authority’s 70,000 tenants were single women with children, many of whom were without jobs and had grown up in public housing projects. If that isn’t cultural, what is?  
     Children are not the product of spontaneous generation. Procreation is the result of behavior, and (with the exception of rape) participation in this behavior is by choice. So, you have a culture of people who choose procreative activity despite having no spouses, no education and no economic prospects. It cannot be blamed on a lack of education or public transportation to the suburbs because just a few decades prior the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of these same women faced even more social, economic and political marginalization (Jim Crow et al) without 1/5th of the 90% illegitimacy rates that was in those homes. 
    And incidentally, this is not just an issue with chronically unemployed high school dropouts. Single mothers with college or trade school educations are really struggling also, especially those who have multiple children. No amount of universal childcare, universal healthcare, universal housing programs that can be created is going to erase the wealth gap between a single mother with 3 children and a 2 parent household (or better yet an extended family household with multiple income earners) with 3 children. 

    Economics may not be very politically correct (or convenient) but they are still economics. A city with a large population of single mothers is going to have a large wealth gap. Especially when you consider that the children of single mothers statistically far more likely A) economically underperform and B) become single mothers themselves. You are correct, it is not racial, it is cultural, and the mainstreaming of this illegitimacy culture is only going to entrench the wealth gap, especially since marriage rates remain high (and illegitimacy and divorce rates comparatively very low) among the upper classes. 
    It would be one thing if it were only Focus On The Family paying attention to this issue. But the truth is that the New York Times – not known for social conservatism – has been running articles and opeds on the economic implications of marriage rates being high for the upper class and bottoming out for the middle and lower classes for years now. The difference is that they refer to it as “marriage privilege” and unsubtly suggest that the solution is for upper class people to become single parents also, so that low and middle income women and their children will be less disadvantaged. But even there also, the New York Times acknowledges that a cultural change has to take place in order to truly address the wealth gap. The only difference is that they are advocating a cultural change in the other direction.Report

  7. ScottNAtlanta February 25, 2014 9:35 pm

    @atlman RSGiolito 
    Ok…now that you have given your “politically incorrect” diagnosis (which has a lot of problems but for the sake of time we will give you your premise), what is your solution?  Let them rot in substandard housing?  Create a desperate class of people who have no option but to turn to crime because YOUR vision of society has turned their back?
    Yes, people make bad choices all the time…and I’m sure you have made a couple as well.  The problem is you cant possibly know who has and for what reason.  Thats the problem with the conservative approach to things these days.  You dont try to target and fix the problem as is…you look for blame and then place it on everyone…so everyone pays for your supposed morality.Report

  8. ScottNAtlanta February 25, 2014 9:40 pm

    idea that all problems are rooted in economics and can be addressed by
    government managing and allocating economic resources more equally has
    been disproven time and time again.”
    Well you are wrong on that.  The New Deal would prove otherwise, as would WW2 and government mobilizing of resources for that war.  So, your whole rant is based on a false premise…and I really have no need to read it.  When you make sweeping generalizations like that, you cant possibly come up with a policy thats coherent and worksReport

  9. mariasaporta February 26, 2014 4:13 pm

    Readers, interesting exchange of ideas. The point I was making was that we had a window of opportunity after the Olympics to take a multi-prong approach to addressing the issues of creating a strong middle class in the City of Atlanta.  It was not a government-only solution.  There were business leaders at the table seeking partnerships with philanthropic and government agencies.  They were looking at making a concerted effort with one tangible goal — build the middle class in Atlanta.  We have lost sight of what goal we need in our city. We talk about jobs. We talk about less crime. We talk about good schools. Well having a strong middle class was integral to all of the above.  As I said in the column, it was a missed opportunity.  We’ve had many.  But there’s always today.  We can try to figure out what it will take to make our city as healthy as it can be for all our citizens — including single moms with children. Thanks for exchanging your ideas. MariaReport

  10. Al Bartell February 26, 2014 5:01 pm

    Keep writing Maria…keep…writing….keep writing…keep writing.Report

  11. Al Bartell February 26, 2014 5:04 pm

    Keep writing..Maria, keep writing..keep writing…keep writingReport

  12. Burroughston Broch February 27, 2014 7:26 pm

    Regardless of how you define metro Atlanta, the City of Atlanta’s population is significantly less than 10% of the total. The Census Bureau reported the City had 420,000 inhabitants in 2010 while the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area had 6.1 million inhabitants. The City contained 6.9% of the metro population.
    At the peak of its population in 1970, the City contained 28% of the metro population.Report


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