Location matters in polarized economy

Unlike a train, economic growth doesn’t pull the caboose along at the same pace as the engine.

The economy may accelerate coming out of a recession, slowly picking up steam until the leading sectors are rolling along at a good clip. But some neighborhoods and people can feel as if they aren’t even coupled to the same train.

It seems true for Mynetta Ford, as it does for the Lakewood area of Atlanta where she lives.

While the state and metro Atlanta unemployment rate dropped, Ford been jobless since the spring when she was laid off as a teacher’s assistant at a charter school.

“I want to get back on my feet,” she said.

That’s harder in a place like Zip Code 30315, most of which is Lakewood. According to the Census Bureau, the median income is $21,280. Just 52 percent of working-age people are even in the labor force. Among those people, the unemployment rate is 22 percent.

By comparison, Alpharetta’s Zip code of 30005 – east of Ga. 400 — has a median household income of $102,174. About 80 percent of working-age people are in the labor force and the unemployment rate is 6.5 percent.

“We have had a polarization of jobs in this recovery,” said Melissa Johnson, senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“We have recovered many low-wage jobs and high-wage jobs, but jobs with middle-level wages lost the most and recovered the least.”

Examples of middle-wage jobs: construction, some nursing jobs, teaching.

Low-wage jobs include most front-line fast-food, retail and hospitality positions, as well as home health aides. High wage jobs include many technology and white collar professional jobs.

But for people who live in Lakewood and other city neighborhoods, there’s an across-the-board disadvantage, she said: Most of the job growth is on the north side of metro Atlanta. That raises or enlarges obstacles ranging from transportation to child care.

A very good student

Mynetta Ford has faced plenty of obstacles — some she admits she created herself, some set in her path by circumstance. She said she grew up in a dysfunctional family in the area, but was a very good student who was chosen for a magnet program.

Hopes for college faded when she got pregnant late in high school and had a baby.

She has worked a number of jobs, most recently one she really liked as a teacher’s assistant. She made $15 an hour, enough to cover her $650-a-month apartment and most expenses. Then she was let go.

Now, she volunteers most days at the center run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul on Lakewood Avenue, while she studies toward a degree in early childhood education at Atlanta Tech.

The St. Vincent center includes a food pantry and thrift store that offers classes and help to people in need. The neighborhood is struggling, said John Berry, CEO of the society for Georgia.

“Somebody broke in here and went down into the food pantry and they took one box of meat,” Berry said. “Somebody just wanted to feed their family. It was kind of heartbreaking.”

Eileen Parker, a case manager at St. Vincent’s, said the typical income in the area is $12,000-$14,000 a year.

“A lot of people around here have jobs, but they are not full-time, so if they don’t work, they don’t get paid,” Parker said. “I had a person here saying, ‘I went to school, did everything I was supposed do and I’m not making what I thought I’d make.”

‘I love it, I do’

Cindy Graham, 51, drives 45 minutes to work as a presser in a Lawrenceville dry cleaners. The drive would take a lot longer if she didn’t have to be there at 6 a.m.

“You have to get up early because if you don’t, you’ll die in the heat.”

Even so, it’s more than 100 degrees in front of the press, she said. “It’s a job that you have to love and I love it, I do. I would hate to get up every morning and go to a job I didn’t like.”

She makes about $15,000 a year, she said. “It’s okay. I am keeping a roof over my head.”

She pays $460 a month for her apartment.

Once a week, she works at the St. Vincent’s food pantry – as a volunteer. After her shift, they usually let her take a little food, but she often just gives it to a neighbor.

“I have a neighbor and one of her children has Down Syndrome and really eats a lot of lunch meat, so I bring him some. That is what it’s all about. God blesses me and I need to take some blessings and give it to somebody else.”

Seeking warehouse work

Bernard Meadows, who lives in College Park a few miles south, wants a full-time job and he’s been looking, mostly for warehouse work. That’s been a big growth sector in metro Atlanta during the recovery, with massive new warehouses springing up along interstates from Gwinnett to Coweta counties.

“They say they have jobs, but then you apply and they say they are not hiring. It’s hard if you don’t have a degree, don’t have the right experience, don’t have the right training,” Meadows said.

Meadows, 53, has been a manager at Walmart. He’s been a manager at a Chevron station. He’s been homeless. He lives in a rooming house for $300 a month.

“It’s okay, but it’s not my own,” he said.

He said he’s hopeful. And frugal: “I can make $20 go a long way.”

“I am just trying to get back on my feet,” he said, echoing Mynetta Ford.

Meanwhile, he cooks two days a week for a friend, and he comes to the St. Vincent’s center four days a week to volunteer.

“This keeps me going,” he said. “I come here in the morning like I’m working.”

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