In Atlanta, breaking poverty’s cycle proves difficult

“Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two: one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another.”

— Plato, 427-347 B.C.

Atlanta has the largest disparity between rich and poor of any major city in the country, according to a study released last month by the Brookings Institution. The ratio between the income of the wealthiest 5 percent of Atlanta households — those making $280,000 or more a year — and the bottom 20 percent — those making $14,850 or less — is significantly higher here than in any other American city, Brookings claims.

And unfortunately, anyone who knows the city knows that the story painted by those numbers is probably accurate. We are an amalgam of stunningly beautiful, prosperous neighborhoods of imposing mansions that are called home by Fortune 500 executives, not far as the crow flies from poverty-riddled neighborhoods where jobs, education and hope are all in short supply. Those worlds share a time and space yet rarely interact.

The Brookings findings reinforce the findings of a study released last summer by analysts at Harvard and Cal-Berkeley, concluding economic mobility is worse in metro Atlanta than in any other part of the country. Together, those studies constitute a damning indictment of Atlanta as a highly stratified city with at best limited opportunity for those at its bottom rungs.

The questions to be asked are why that gap exists, and how that gap it might be closed. And that requires honest, open discussion of the causes and persistence of urban poverty, particularly in cities where poverty concentrates in what amount to ghettos. (While the term has come to be racially charged in its current context, it has a useful history going back hundreds of years and application to a variety of ethnic groups).

For example, through its "Panel Study of Income Dynamics," the University of Michigan has been tracking the economic fortunes of roughly 5,000 American families since 1968. Mining that data, sociologist Patrick Sharkey reports that "72 percent (of black Americans living in ghettos) were raised by parents who also lived in the ghetto a generation earlier. In other words, almost three out of four black families living in today's poorest, most segregated neighborhoods are the same families that lived in the ghettos of the 1970s."

As Sharkey wrote provocatively in the Boston Review, “To put it differently: the ghetto appears to be inherited.”

In addition, research shows that the more isolated a poor neighborhood is — isolated by a lack of transportation options, isolated by racial segregation, isolated by social class, isolated by school attendance zones — the more likely poverty is to persist from generation to generation. The neighborhood and family that you grow up in may not dictate your fate, but they are powerful influences nonetheless. They provide a social network and contacts that can either pull you up or pull you down, and only the strong and lucky can escape it.

The data also confirm the powerful role played by education. Not surprisingly, cities with high levels of income inequality also feature large numbers of high school dropouts and large numbers of people with college degrees, which certainly describes Atlanta.

And again — here’s the scary part — relative education levels are remarkably persistent over time. A 2008 study by Edward Glaeser, Matt Resseger and Kristina Tobio at Harvard’s Kennedy School found that areas with a lot of educational disparity back in the 1940s still have high economic inequality today. In fact, going back further still, “we find that the share of the population enrolled in college in 1850 is a quite solid predictor of income inequality today.”

In other words, what we see around us today are the results of patterns both in individual lives and in the life of a city that have proved stubbornly resistant to change. And the best catalyst for that change remains a strong teacher in a classroom, opening doors and opening minds, who is supported by a larger community that finds the status quo unacceptable.