By Maria Saporta

Metro Atlanta’s profile is changing with a dramatic growth of poverty in the suburbs.

Several recent studies point to reality challenging the perception that the poor are concentrated in the central city while the middle-income and higher-income populations are living in the suburbs.

“In Atlanta, the poor population in the city held stead between 2000 and 2010 whilethe poor population in the suburbs grew by 122 percent — more than doubling over the course of the decade,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, who was in Atlanta presenting her findings.

By comparison, among the nation’s 95 largest metro areas, the poor population in the suburbs grew by 53 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the poor population in cities grew by 23 percent, Kneebone added.

The last decade has been tough for the United States as per capita income has declined.

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. 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. (click on image). Source: Atlanta Regional Commission’s Neighborhood Nexus
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. (click on image). Source: Atlanta Regional Commission’s Neighborhood Nexus

Kneebone said that in 2000, the country had 81 million people living at or near the poverty line. In 2010, that number had grown to 104 million people.

Yet the growth of poverty in metro Atlanta’s suburbs is outpacing that in other areas.

The Atlanta Regional Commission’s  upcoming “Regional Snapshot” shows that among the 20 most populous metro areas in the county, Atlanta had the highest percentage increase in suburban poverty.

Between 2000 and 2010, poverty increased 5.9 percent in the suburbs compared to 1.7 percent in the city. Although suburban poverty rates are still lower than inside the urban core, “poverty rates  rose at three times the rate in the first-ring suburbs when compared to the urban core,” according to the Regional Snapshot.

“People used to feel safe by getting into their cars and going to a suburban place and getting away from it all,” said Milton Little, president of the United Way for Greater Atlanta. “Now it’s coming to them. The America of 2013 is just a very different place than the America of decades ago.”

Unfortunately, most of the nation’s public policy programs and social services have been designed to serve the poor living in central cities. Suburbs often do not have the services, such as reliable public transit, that exist in more urban areas.

“Suburban poverty brings added challenges,” said Kneebone, who is co-authoring a book: “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America” that is scheduled to be released in May. In addition to a lack of transportation options, there are big gaps in social services available in suburban communities.

There also are the ongoing issues of how to make sure the poor have access to job opportunities and decent schools so that their situations can improve.

“It’s not just about people moving to the suburbs,” Kneebone said. “It’s also people living in the suburbs slipping down the economic ladder.  During the Great Recession, the unemployment population doubled in the suburbs.”

Lesley Grady, senior vice president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, summed it up this way. “Poverty ain’t a good thing anywhere,” she said during a panel discussion on suburban poverty that United Way convened after Kneebone’s presentation.

For charitable organizations and government agencies, providing services to the poor living in the suburbs adds another complexity to their task during a period of declining resources.

But United Way’s Little said the community has little choice but to respond to the challenge.

“We can’t do it in isolation,” Little said. “Part of the work we want to do is to make place irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter you live.”

A growth in suburban poverty is a double-edge sword.

On the one hand, it has been proven that having concentrations of poverty in one geographic area unfortunately can trap people into generational poverty through depressed communities, weak schools and few positive role models.

Several cities, including Atlanta, have focused their efforts in creating mixed-income communities where the poor will have greater opportunities to improve their place in the world.

But on the other hand, dispersing the poor all corners of our region make it that much harder to provide services, whether it be transit, social support and job opportunities.

Local and state governments, already strapped for resources, are having to develop new programs to serve their growing poor populations.

At the same time, the needs of the poor living in the central city have not gone away. If there ever were a time to have greater cooperation between urban and suburban cities and counties, it is now.

As Kneebone said: “Poverty in cities has not gone away, but now suburbs are struggling along side them.”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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  1. Unfortunately, the uptick in poverty in counties like DeKalb and Clayton is no surprise.
    From a historical perspective, the uptick in poverty in suburban counties like Cobb and Gwinnett could be surprising at first glance seeing as though those counties have a history of being filled with areas with higher-income earners.
    But upon a closer and more thorough examination, the continued growth in poverty in those traditionally higher-income earning counties, especially in South Cobb below and through parts of unincorporated Marietta, through parts of unincorporated Smyrna and in Southwest Gwinnett through zip codes 30047, 30071, 30093, etc, should come as no surprise with the massive amount of population growth that those counties have experienced over the last several decades.
    The massive amount of population growth in Cobb and Gwinnett (and Clayton and DeKalb) counties over the past few decades has turned those counties from predominantly-rural exurban/outer-suburban communities into increasingly-urban districts of the inner core of a much-larger Metro Atlanta. 
    A bit of irony, one might say, in the continued uptick in poverty in once-suburban Cobb and Gwinnett counties in particular, is the seeming continued lack of resources to adequately deal with the rising amounts of poverty in those two increasingly heavily-populated counties which have gained maximum political clout as both Cobb and Gwinnett counties have grown to become the 4th-most and 2nd-most populated counties in the state of Georgia, respectively.
    What is most-concerning about counties like Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Clayton is that they are all effectively heavily-populated, highly-urbanized urban counties with lots of urban issues that are effectively still being governed mostly as though they are still sparcely-populated outer-suburban/exurban counties with very-few issues of elevated poverty or crime levels.
    The appearance that some suburban Metro Atlanta counties are still being governed as though it is 1983 and not 2013 is very-concerning moving forward, especially as demonstrated most-recently in Clayton County (with the continued troubles on Clayton County’s schoolboard and discontinuance of the county’s bus service seemingly as a way to dissuade lower-income residents from moving into the county), in DeKalb County (with the troubles of corruption and incompetence within the DeKalb County School System) and in Gwinnett County (with three past commissioners having recently resigned because of official charges of corruption, shady land deals, etc).

  2. Interesting piece Maria. This a complex subject with no one cause, however it is  well recognized by city planners and urbanists that as housing stock gets older, affluent people begin to move and as this occurs less prosperous people move in to these neighborhoods. This is one of the reasons that suburbs sprawl, upper middle class people continuing to move further out to be in homogeneous places.
    In the case of Atlanta, the outer rings have become unattractive due to traffic congestion and other transportation factors, so we are experiencing the revitalization of in town neighborhoods that were abandoned by the middle class 40-75 years ago.  Since housing prices go up in the first ring suburbs, the poor have little choice but to move to 2nd and 3rd ring suburbs that have experienced disinvestment. Not really surprising when you think about it.
    Cities are in a constant state of dynamism and the disadvantaged have less resources to cope with change.

    1. @ McDonald:  Those are some excellent points. 
      {{“Cities are in a constant state of dynamism”}}
      That is a VERY KEY POINT and an excellent point that you made with that observation, that cities are in a constant state of dynamism.
      It is an observation and very key point that many in charge here in Metro Atlanta seem not to have gotten and many of them seem to think that population growth is and/or will be static, even though all of the demographic evidence over the last 60 years has been quite the contrary.
      When Metro Atlanta really began to experience extreme overcrowding problems in the late 1990’s in the period shortly after the Olympics, many ‘leaders’ seemed to think or theorize that the overcrowding (extreme congestion, etc) that the metro region was experiencing would deter future growth so that there would really be not much of a need to invest in future transportation infrastructure (particularly transit infrastructure) as people would stop coming to Atlanta because of the congestion and overcrowding problems.
      That was in 1999, just before the Atlanta region registered 4.1 million inhabitants in the 2000 Census the following year.
      14 years later the population of the Atlanta region stands at roughly about an estimated 5.9 million inhabitants.
      Roughly 1.8 million or so newcomers have moved to Metro Atlanta since the problems with extreme overcrowding were infamously cited in a article in the New York Times in the fall of 1999.
      Roughly 2.4 million or so newcomers have moved to Metro Atlanta since the conclusion of the 1996 Summer Olympics when the population of the Atlanta region stood at roughly 3.5 million residents.
      And roughly 3 million or so new residents have moved to the Atlanta region since the conclusion of the “Freeing-the-Freeways” widening and reconstruction of the Metro Atlanta freeway system in the late 1980’s as the 1990 U.S. Census reflected that the population of the Atlanta region stood at 2.9 million residents.

  3. I dare say that Atlanta’s infamous auto-dependency is coming home to roost, in this era of higher oil costs.
    Here’s an interesting observation in looking at the map: Peachtree City, with its extensive network of alternative transportation, is free of red. My hypothesis: Even the ‘burbs can be less auto-dependent and therefor economically resilient. Extend a commuter rail line to Peachtree City and watch auto ownership drop even more.
    These “what if’ scenarios are the sort of thing GASTA is all about.

    1. @Bob Munger
       A part of the rise in suburban poverty rates could possibly have to do with automobile-overdependency.
      But the most likely explanation for the rise in suburban poverty rates is the continued high rates of population growth, especially in counties like Cobb and Gwinnett where the population growth has been massive and the type of newcomers moving to those suburban counties has changed from predominantly white and upper-middle class to predominantly non-white and working class as upper-middle class whites are not the only people moving into the suburbs anymore.
      The change in the type of newcomer moving into suburban counties has especially been evidenced by the areas in Southern Cobb and Southern Gwinnett Counties that have more recently turned predominantly non-white and working class and the areas in DeKalb and Clayton counties that turned from predominantly upper-middle class white to predominantly non-white and working class back through the 1980’s and ’90’s. 
      The rises in suburban poverty have also most likely been affected by the continued effects of the economic downturn that started in the late Aughts, effects that include continued high rates of unemployment and resulting high rates of home mortgage loan defaults and home foreclosures.
      Also responsible for the rise of suburban poverty rates is the continued out-migration of middle-class whites, currently from ‘inner ring’ suburbs like Cobb, North Fulton and Gwinnett counties to ‘outer ring’ suburbs even farther out in Paulding, Cherokee, Forsyth, Hall, Jackson and Barrow counties on the Northside and from ‘inner ring’ suburban counties like South Fulton and Clayton to ‘outer ring’ suburban counties like Coweta, Fayette and Henry counties on the Southside.
      The continued out-migration of middle-class whites from inner-ring suburbs to farther-out suburbs and exurbs has in many cases left behind an abundant supply of cheap housing for working-class non-whites to easily move into, like how working-class non-whites have moved in virtually mass numbers into aging apartment complexes in DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett that used to be very-popular with middle-class whites (or ‘yuppies’) back in the 1970’s, ’80’s and ’90’s.

      1. @The Last Democrat in Georgia The Center for Neighborhood Technology has a nice data-rich map called the H+T Index of affordability (Housing plus Transportation)which illustrates the way affordability changes once transportation costs are factored in. It’s not a pretty picture for Metro Atlanta.

  4. If you zoom in on Peachtree City on the H+T map by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, you will see that Peachtree City is a small yellow area surrounded by blue. This means that it is a more affordable place to live than it surrounds, due (I hypothesize) to it’s low automobile dependency. I will also go out on a limb and suggest that it’s real estate foreclosure rates have been (conversely) relatively low and its home values more resilient, despite the high number of airline industry workers.
    Might make for an interesting masters thesis.

    1. @Bob Munger
      That lower rate of automobile dependency in Peachtree City is because of the system of multi-use paths in which golf cart transportation is heavily-utilized.
      Also, in addition to being the home to a high number of airline industry employees as you mention, P’tree City also seems to be a planned golf-themed community of sorts with a high number of retirees in the mold of a Sun City, Arizona, a series of golf-themed retirement-oriented communities outside of Phoenix.

  5. Kelly
    Your comments and observation are laden with ingnorance and racial prejudice. White people are not the only population in the metro counties who are considered to be upper or middle class persons. I have lived in one of the popular metro Atlanta communities for almost twenty-five years and understand clearly why my community as well as other metro areas are now noted as lower income communities. It has nothing to do with the “white” flight. It has a complexity of many factors. Such occurrences as the housing crisis of ’08, loss of manufacturing jobs that have been sent over seas, and an influx of low income families who have section eight vouchers moving into suburban communities that they would otherwise not be able to afford; as well as upper and middle income families moving into higher priced communities. I am African American and my income is considered to be upper income. I have seen this metamorphosis take place in my community as well as many other metro areas. I serve these families of all races who have moved into my community and many of them are low income families. And while I earn a much higher salary than them, I am no better than they are. They are just as important than I or any other human being. Race is not the issue here, it a matter of economics!

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