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Think metro ATL isn’t the place you remember? You’re right, says new GSU report

David Pendered
College degree, 2015

By David Pendered

A report released Monday by Georgia State University shows dramatic changes in metro Atlanta’s demographics since 1970. The population is more diverse, older, better educated, and living closer together. The proportion of middle income households has declined slightly since the Great Recession.

Even the geographic definition of the region has grown by leaps and bounds:

  • “In 1970, the Atlanta [metropolitan statistical area], as defined by the federal government, consisted of five counties (Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett), spanned 1,731 square miles and had a population of 1,387,865.
  • “By 2015, the Atlanta MSA consisted of 29 counties, encompassed 8,376 square miles and had a population of 5,710,795.”

To accommodate this growth, residents have given up a good bit of their personal space:

  • “The population density of the five counties increased from 802 people per square mile in 1970 to 2,048 people per square mile in 2015; the population density of the 29 counties in 2015 was 682.”


high income households, 2015

This map and the one below shows a correlation between high income households and educational attainment. High income households are concentrated in Buckhead and communities that flank the Ga. 400 corridor. Credit: GSU

The Changing Face of Atlanta covers the era from 1970 to 2015. The co-authors are Lakshmi Pandey and David Sjoquist. In a report to be released Tuesday, the two collaborate with colleague Chandrayee Chatterjee on an analysis of Georgia to be released this week, The Loss of the Middle Class.

The author’s highlighted the following findings:

  • “The percentage of the population that was nonwhite nearly doubled, increasing from 22.2 percent to 44.2 percent of the total population.
  • “The percentage of the adult population with less than a high school diploma decreased from 52.6 percent to 11.8 percent, while the percentage with a college degree or more increased from 12.0 percent to 35.8 percent.
  • “From 1970 to 2015, those 17 years of age and under fell from 34.2 percent to 25.6 percent of the total population, while those 65 years of age and over increased from 7.3 percent to 10.3 percent.
  • “The percentage of households classified as middle income went from 47.8 percent in 1970 to 52.7 percent in 2000, before falling to 46.2 percent in 2015.”
College degree, 2015

This map shows that college-educated individuals tend to congregate in Buckhead, the Perimeter Mall area and east Cobb County, north DeKalb County, and along the Ga. 400 corridor. Credit: GSU

These findings are compatible with others on metro Atlanta, which have covered issues including income mobility and housing costs. However, the GSU analysis is far more nuanced.

The GSU report benefits from Sjoquist’s perspective. He joined GSU in 1970 and has been a prolific researcher/author on the evolution of metro Atlanta on topics including the region’s economy, jobs, tax policy, impact of transit, and education, according to his bio on GSU’s website.

Pandey brings more than 19 years of experience at GSU in data-driven policy analysis.

The report arrives an opportune moment. The findings are likely to be of use to urban planners in Atlanta and transit advocates at the state level.

Atlanta is in the midst of rewriting its decades-long vision of the city’s growth and development. The Atlanta City Design Project is overseen by Ryan Gravel, who dreamed up the vision for the Atlanta BeltLine.

State lawmakers almost agreed to create a commission to evaluate the planning and possible statewide funding of mass transit systems in Atlanta and other urban centers. The Senate passed Senate Bill 6. A House committee wrote a substitute version, and the House voted on the last day of the session to send the bill back to committee. It is eligible for consideration in the 2018 legislative session.

Click to enlarge each map:

percent white, 1970

Metro Atlanta was home to a large proportion of white residents in 1970. All or portions of 12 counties were comprised of populations of more than 90 percent white residents. Credit: GSU


By 2015, the region had diversified. Only a handful of exurban counties were comprised of populations that were at least 90 percent white. Credit: GSU

By 2015, the region had diversified. Only a handful of exurban counties were comprised of populations that were at least 90 percent white. Credit: GSU

population below poverty, 2000

By 2000, the region’s economic vitality had helped most households climb above the poverty line. Credit: GSU

population below poverty, 2015

The lingering effects of the Great Recession may be the reason so many households had fallen below the poverty line in 2015. Credit: GSU

David Pendered
David Pendered

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.


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