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