King’s final frontier: Georgia losing war on poverty, GBPI study calls for new policies to mitigate poverty

By David Pendered

A new report shows poverty is expanding in Georgia, a grim reminder of the final frontier Martin Luther King, Jr. had identified before his death.

The GBPI report matched the findings in 2013 of the Brookings Institute: Suburban poverty is rising at a rate faster than urban or rural poverty. Credit: GBPI

The GBPI report matched the findings in 2013 of the Brookings Institute: Suburban poverty is rising at a rate faster than urban or rural poverty. Credit: GBPI

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute found that Georgia residents now comprise the sixth poorest population in the nation. Georgia’s poverty rate is at its highest since 1982. Some 1.8 million Georgians live in poverty – more than 19 percent of the state’s population.

King had announced his Poor People’s Campaign five months before his assassination in April 1968. Five weeks after the shooting, the campaign built an encampment on the National Mall in Washington to house demonstrators for six weeks. Robert Kennedy’s funeral procession passed through Resurrection City in a show of respect, according to Stanford University’s King research institute.

The GBPI report suggests that 46 years after Resurrection City, King’s birth state is losing the battle to lift residents out of poverty:

  • “Georgia ranks as the sixth worst state for child poverty. Child poverty rose to 27.2 percent in 2012, up from 24.8 percent in 2010.
  • “Lagging educational opportunities and achievement among poor children and adults reinforce the cycle of poverty.
  • Click on the image for a larger view of this interpretive display of Martin Luther King, Jr.; King at the Georgia Capitol; and Civil Rights and the Georgia Capitol. The display is located in the north wing of the Capitol and is open to the public. Credit: Donita Pendered

    Click on the image for a larger view of this interpretive display of Martin Luther King, Jr.; King at the Georgia Capitol; and Civil Rights and the Georgia Capitol. The display is located in the north wing of the Capitol and is open to the public. Credit: Donita Pendered

    “Academic performance of lower-income children in grades K-12 continues to lag behind their more affluent peers. This cycle carries into higher education where the majority of Georgians not in poverty have some form of post-secondary education and the majority of poor Georgians do not.

  • “A rise in lower-quality jobs contributed to the rise in poverty since 2010. About 123,000 Georgians ages 16 to 64 live in poverty, even though they work full time. The number of these poor full-time workers increased by more than 20 percent since 2010.

And the trends are heading in the wrong direction.

The report’s author, GBPI policy analyst Melissa Johnson, found that pathways out of poverty are increasingly blocked. The poor face struggles with high housing costs and health bills, a lack of transportation to job centers, childcare that can accommodate their early-morning and late-night work schedules, and a shortage of education and skills necessary to land a well-paying job.

Suburbanization of Poverty: This map shows where the largest increases in poverty occurred in the Atlanta region. As you can see, those areas right outside of the I-285 perimeter in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett had among the largest poverty rate increases since 2000. You can also see that some cities in exurban counties, like Cartersville, Gainesville, Winder, Monroe, to name a few, had among the largest increases in poverty as well. Source: Atlanta Regional Commission's Neighborhood Nexus

Suburbanization of Poverty: This map shows where the largest increases in poverty occurred in the Atlanta region. Some areas right outside I-285, in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, had among the largest poverty rate increases since 2000. Some cities in exurban counties, including Cartersville, Gainesville, Winder, and Monroe, had among the largest increases in poverty. Source: Atlanta Regional Commission’s Neighborhood Nexus

If these trends are unchecked, prosperity will become more elusive for the poor, Johnson states:

  • “Lower levels of education are expected to also hurt the ability of poor Georgians to be hired for jobs in the future. Between 2010 and 2020, projections call for 1.7 million job vacancies in Georgia. Sixty-four percent of them will require at least some college education. Since the majority of poor Georgians do not have that, they will be unable to compete for most of Georgia’s future jobs.”

Poverty cuts across black-and-white racial boundaries in Georgia, the report found. About the same number of each race is poor, though poverty affects a greater proportion of black because blacks make up 31 percent of the state’s population and whites comprise 60 percent.

Poverty had a similar face when King summoned the Poor People’s Campaign. It drew support from American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and poor whites, according to the Stanford research institute.

King framed the issue of poverty and the Poor People’s Campaign in these terms at a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference:

  • “’This is a highly significant event,’ King told delegates at an early planning meeting, describing the campaign as ‘the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.’”

Today in the nation’s capital, Republicans and Democrats have renewed their discussion of the future of the war on poverty. President Obama is slated to highlight income disparity in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28. Politicians of all stripes already are lining up to lay out their positions on addressing poverty, according to a Jan. 9 article in nytimes.com.

In the GBPI report, Johnson outlines a few policy changes she thinks could move the needle in Georgia’s efforts to help poor Georgians improve their quality of life. Each proposal is within the purview of the state Legislature, now convened in Atlanta:

  • “Long-term solutions to mitigate poverty include accessible early and postsecondary education, a higher minimum wage and affordable health insurance through Medicaid and other government supports. These investments can help 1.8 million Georgians better support their families and contribute to the state’s economy.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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