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To climb from poverty, metro Atlanta’s poor children need positive role models

David Pendered
blight near mercedes benz stadium

By David Pendered

Put simply, poor children in metro Atlanta aren’t moving up the economic ladder. That was the case in 2013, and that remained the case in 2018, according to studies released by an affiliate of Harvard University.

What did change in the intervening years is the suspected cause of the lack of upward mobility. It’s not proximity to jobs; it’s children seeing adults go to work.

The latest edition of Opportunity Atlas, released in October by Harvard-based Opportunity Insights, provides this analysis of the reasons poor children in metro Atlanta aren’t climbing the economic ladders:

  • “[W]e find that a strong positive correlation between the employment rates of adults who live in a given [Census] tract and rates of upward mobility for children who grow up there. Evidently, what matters for upward mobility is not proximity to jobs, but growing up around people who have jobs.”

In addition to seeing adults go to work, the study determined that upward mobility rates for children also:

  • “[C]orrelate strongly with other characteristics of the local population, such as mean incomes, the share of two-parent families, as well as proxies for social capital and test scores.”

These findings are in contrast to the working theory in 2013, when the study was in its infancy.

At that time, researchers presumed that residing near a job center made it easier for poor children to improve their economic condition as they grow up because they can take one of those jobs. This is how Harvard economics Professor Nathaniel Hendren portrayed the findings of the 2013 study at a meeting of the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum:

  • “In areas where a larger portion [of residents] have commutes less than 15 minutes, there is a higher rate of upward mobility. … That’s consistent with this idea that access to jobs includes upward mobility.”
blight near mercedes benz stadium

Despite their proximity to jobs in Downtown Atlanta, residents of the neighborhoods west of Mercedes Benz Stadium have household incomes below the median average for rest of Atlanta – which manifests itself in blight and intergenerational poverty. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The revised theory addresses the phenomenon of local children not finding employment even amid the region’s rapid rate of job growth. This is because employers fill the new jobs not with locals, but with workers who were recruited to the region or came on their own accord, according to the study that says Charlotte faces a similar phenomenon:

  • “These cities achieve high rates of economic growth by importing talent – i.e., attracting high-skilled people to move in and fill high-paying jobs. While this impressive economic growth may have brought other benefits to these cities, it is clear that a booming economy does not guarantee better outcomes for local children.”

The study poses a question and offers an interactive map to find answers. The question reads:

  • “Many policymakers use job growth as a measure of a city’s economic success. But does higher job growth translate into higher upward mobility for children?”

The answer seems to be, “No,” for a number of neighborhoods west of the Mercedes Benz Stadium. Despite proximity to the jobs in Atlanta’s Central Business District, household incomes are low while incarceration rates are significant. Here are the numbers for a few Census tracts:

  • Vine City – Household income, $17,000 a year; incarceration rate, 8.1 percent (defined as neighborhood children in prison or jail on April 1, 2010);
  • English Avenue – Household income, $15,000 a year; incarceration rate, 13 percent;
  • Atlanta University Center – Household income, $25,000; incarceration rate, 4.8 percent.

The study’s findings that children are affected mainly by their own neighborhood, and not nearby neighborhoods, seem to be borne out in these findings in Census tracts near the three cited above:

  • Home Park – Household income, $30,000; incarceration rate, 4.4 percent;
  • Downtown Atlanta – Household income, $21,000; incarceration rate, 5.4 percent;
  • Castleberry Hill – Household income, $25,000; incarceration rate, 4 percent.


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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  1. Avatar
    Not playin January 6, 2019 7:07 pm

    Positive role models, like who…
    Kiesha Lance Bottoms ?….the heir apparent is no better than her predecessor….

    she’s positively….





  2. Avatar
    David Edwards January 6, 2019 9:43 pm

    Thanks David for the the interesting piece.

    I am frankly surprised that researchers are still searching for answers on what inhibits social and economic mobility. The science is in: exposure to sources of toxic stress will impede the healthy neurological and physiological health of children. These sources of toxic stress – which includes environmental hazards, housing instability and crime and violence – are highly correlated with neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. These neighborhoods were created as a consequence of a set of mal-intended public policies and private actions that segregated our cities and trapped families and children in cycles of poverty over many generations.

    If we are to solve this problem – and give children a chance to lead healthy, productive and happy lives – we need to transform these distressed neighborhoods into healthy ones. Every child should live in a socially diverse, self-sustaining neighborhood that is safe, environmentally sound, with good schools and high-quality public infrastructure. And it can be done, if we just would choose to focus on it.




  3. Avatar
    Greg Hodges January 7, 2019 10:03 am

    A Harvard affiliate study has now been able to determine that “Evidently, what matters for upward mobility is not proximity to jobs , but growing up around people who have jobs.” Thank God for Harvard…..what an astounding revelation !
    In other news recently revealed yet another ‘study’ …….. water is wet.





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