By Saba Long
During the second half of the 20th century Atlanta experienced the demographic and political shifts caused by white flight.
In contrast, during the first two decades of the 21st century, Atlanta could be remembered for its class and economic moves when the pendulum swung the other way. Rather than being in the news for “little Vietnam,” Atlanta is reveling in celebrity-chef restaurant opening, enjoying corporate relocations to the central city and rebounding in the rankings for top metro areas.
Yet, this booming growth is not being felt across the Atlanta region.
The Atlanta Regional Commission recently held the first of a forum series “Building Opportunity: A Conversation on Poverty and Transportation Access in Metro Atlanta” to begin tackling the region’s equity challenge.
As a Brookings Institute study notes, the Atlanta region’s growth problem is much more than that of too-rapid suburban growth: it is a problem of unbalanced growth between the northern and southern parts of the region.
In just a decade, the region’s poor population has more than doubled.
Metropolitan affordability is indexed on housing and transportation costs, which combined should make up less than 30 percent of the household budget. The chief economist for the National Association of Realtors predicts home sales, prices and rents will all increase in 2015 partly because of rising mortgage rates.
As high-paying job growth continues to remain concentrated in the northern part of the region, corporations either relocate near MARTA rail stations or to car-dependent areas such as Gwinnett, Cobb and north Fulton.
Data shows only 17 percent of jobs are accessible by transit for suburban metro Atlanta residents and 33 percent for those living in the city.
To put our sprawl in context, the broader 20-county metro region covers more land than the entire state of Massachusetts. Yet, we lack commuter rail – an affordable alternative to multi-county commuting – and we have not been expanding our transit network, nor have we properly invested in road infrastructure.
Even while being ranked as one of the most expensive states for car ownership, Georgia’s citizenry routinely balks at the notion of willingly contributing more money to get us all moving faster, safer and with less stress. The opportunity costs of foregoing transportation investments are linked to the public’s purchasing power.
The Brooking Institute’s report points out that poverty drives up the cost of providing other services like police, schools, courts and fire protection. According to two Wharton scholars, they concluded in the study that “this reduces the resources cities have to serve non-poor residents and increases the tax rates they have to charge all their residents.”
As poverty within a school district starts to increase, the more affluent families overwhelmingly make the decision to relocate to schools with lower proportions of low-income children.
While elected officials are set to debate an approach to address our infrastructure needs, the next frontier is how to invest in human capital.
In both cases, the question we should be asking is, “What is the business case to invest in our human and physical infrastructure needs?”