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Guest Column

New ‘Equity Atlas’ uncovers reasons for income disparities in metro Atlanta

By Guest Columnist NATHANIEL SMITH, founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity

The divide between those who have ‘always had’ and the ones who have ‘never had’ is a national problem.

But nowhere is it more apparent than metro Atlanta where income disparities within communities are enormous with one in four children living below the federally-defined poverty rate. Worse yet, a recent study found Atlanta to be one of the worst regions in the United States for young people to change their circumstances and rise above poverty.

This year the nation observed the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act, much socio-economic progress has been made.  However, many of the issues that divide the rich, the poor, and the middle classes remain ingrained in the policies and decision-making processes that impact our well-being.

To find out the reason for the imbalance, the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE) commissioned a two-year study based on census data, community engagement and other research tools.

The findings, released last week, are the basis of the Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas (MAEA), an innovative mapping tool that compares key quality-of-life indicators in the 28-county region to highlight and quantify where resources are imbalanced.

Nathaniel Smith

Nathaniel Smith

Atlanta is one of a handful of cities in the United States, and the only city in the South, that has conducted such an ambitious equity study.

MAEA is where hyperbole ends by taking the rhetoric out of declarations of equal opportunity and showing instead if the resources they need to succeed actually exist in proportional or equitable amounts.

The MAEA looked at demographic shifts in the metro area, housing availability, economic development, education, health care, public safety, transportation, and the environment.  Of the eight indicators — access to public transit and affordable housing in close proximity to development that provides living-wage jobs, and having the education to compete for those jobs — were the most important factors that determine a person’s ability to achieve a high quality of life.

MAEA shattered some of our previous assumptions about metro Atlanta and reinforced others. Here’s what we learned:

  • The suburbs are no longer predominately white and middle class. The population of metro Atlanta has more than doubled in the past 25 years from 2.7 million people in 1985 to 5.3 million in 2010. Minorities, particularly Hispanics, account for 90 percent of the growth. The region grew by more than one million people in the last decade alone, the bulk of which occurred in Gwinnett County.
  • Poverty, once considered an urban problem, has spread to the suburbs where it increased from 8 percent to 11 percent.
  • Suburban sprawl has negatively impacted the ability to access living-wage jobs.  The lack of accessible public transportation in the suburbs is causing more than 80 percent of metro Atlantans to spend 45 percent of their income on combined transportation and housing expenses.
  • The areas with the highest concentrations of African-American and Hispanic residents had the highest jobless rates. Although all metro Atlanta counties lost businesses from 2007 to 2010, the greatest concentration of contiguous census tracts with 4,613 or more jobs per tract is in North Fulton, North DeKalb, mid-Cobb, North Gwinnett and south Forsyth counties. Joblessness in the City of Atlanta, south DeKalb and north Clayton counties ranged from 16 percent to as high as 58 percent.
  • The lack of a regional transportation system not only makes it difficult for people to get to work, it leaves seniors, people with disabilities and people without cars at risk of navigating streets that lack pedestrian infrastructure.  In fact, MAEA found that metro Atlanta is the 11th deadliest metro area for pedestrians.
  • Housing development throughout metro Atlanta has focused largely on single family, detached homes.  However, MAEA revealed the fastest growing age group in the region is baby boomers between the ages of 45 to 64, underscoring the need for more multi-family housing and transportation options that are not car dependent so people in that age group will have more choices about where they live and shop.
  • MAEA findings also challenge the assumptions that the business executives of the future will remain white, male and educated. The reality is that through changing demographics we have to find ways to unleash the potential of our growing, diverse workforce.  We have to find ways to include the Latino child on Buford Highway, the African-American child in Clayton County, and the Asian child in Gwinnett.

All of the indicators in the MAEA are interconnected and can be improved by a range of specific policy interventions. Improving health outcomes will require taking action to locate homes, schools and jobs in healthy neighborhoods with access to nutritious foods, green space and primary care options.

Reducing unemployment will mean taking action to improve elementary and middle school performance, supporting families in extending learning beyond the classroom and surrounding children with positive options for after school activities that can reduce juvenile delinquency. Expanding transportation options to give people more access to living-wage jobs and affordable housing requires political will, collaborative approaches and genuine community engagement.

These are certainly complicated tasks, but they must begin in earnest if metro Atlanta is to become a region that offers hope and success to all who work and live here.

The Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas is a starting point for a deeper conversation about where inequities are marginalizing neighborhoods. These marginalized neighborhoods are living symbols of the social and economic potential not being realized in metro Atlanta. Equity must be embraced as BOTH a moral cause and economic imperative if we are to compete in the global economy.

To review the report, please visit the Partnership for Southern Equity website. 

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