Opinion: Thriving communities embrace economic mobility

The grim statistics tell the story. Economic mobility, the ability to move from a low income to a middle or higher income, is stagnant or falling in Atlanta and many American cities, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research’s 2015 Equality for Opportunity Project Study. The best predictor of whether a person will be poor, middle class or wealthy is whether that person’s parents were poor, middle class or wealthy.

In Atlanta, according to the NBER, a person who grows up in a family whose income is below the poverty line has less than a five percent chance of escaping poverty. On the opportunity scale, that’s a failure rate of 95 percent.

Numerous organizations — public, private and non-profit — seek to address this fundamental issue. United Way, The Posse Foundation, Urban League, Year Up, Boys & Girls Clubs, Junior Achievement, 100 Black Men and a myriad of other organizations have programs that pursue systemic solutions, or work to help individuals or groups.

These organizations garner support from the community, including my own company, Bank of America. Parents care passionately about enabling their children to embrace opportunities. Our educators know the depth of the problem. Faith leaders persistently urge our involvement. Many political leaders are informed and engaged. The corporate community often steps up, backs programs and voices its support.

But meaningful progress remains elusive.

The costs to society are well-known: a seemingly permanent underclass of people who have little hope; a declining tax base that fails to keep up with the cost of providing necessary services and infrastructure; a loss of human capital — a lack of development of the talent we need to ensure our society and our community’s economic vitality.

Despite metro Atlanta’s great attributes, a city in which 24.6 percent of people live below the poverty line with little hope of ever emerging from it will challenge and even stifle economic development and quality of life for all residents.

A renewed and sustained commitment is urgently needed. We must bring consensus to the problem, enact collaborative solutions that address fundamental causes, and sustain a decades-long effort to change this dynamic.

Bank of America is pledging to engage in and sustain a civic dialogue. Our concerns are non-partisan. They are non-racial. And they are not limited to any geography in the metro area.

Our first step will be to continue our support for those organizations dedicated to workforce development, affordable housing and education. These include longtime Bank of America grant recipients, such as Atlanta CareerRise, Habitat for Humanity and the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership. But it also includes programs like the Junior Achievement Academy — an innovative school model with Fulton County Schools hosted at Banneker High School that combines rigorous education, entrepreneurship and financial literacy skills — and organizations like the Georgia Council on Economic Education, which helps prepare teachers to teach economics and financial literacy to our K-12 students.

The problem is severe. It transcends municipal boundaries. And its solutions lie in a sustained effort to educate the larger community to its perils, engage a broad range of citizens, organizations, governments and non-profits in a variety of solutions.

What is at stake is our viability as a community that attracts and creates good jobs, sustains healthy neighborhoods and understands that our greatest resource is the untapped potential of everyone who lives and works in our city.

Our company’s philanthropic and volunteer work is committed to this effort. This year, we’re again investing more than $1.6 million in grants in the metro Atlanta area to help individuals and families chart a more successful future. That’s part of $43 million that Bank of America is investing in similar programs across the U.S.

Simply put, our purpose is to make financial lives better by focusing our resources to tackle the most-pressing issues facing Atlanta. We’re investing in the following areas: stable affordable housing; educational opportunities and access to career skills training; workforce development — with a focus on meaningful employment for adults and youth; financial counseling — helping launch successful businesses; community development — infrastructure (arts and culture, parks and green space, livable neighborhoods); and basic needs — stem hunger and supportive services.

My colleagues at Bank of America urge everyone to select at least one area of concern and immerse yourself and your company in driving toward a solution. Working together, we can create the conditions that enable economic mobility, thereby ensuring that the opportunities we want for all of our citizens and the strong economy we want for our community are within reach.

Wendy Stewart is Bank of America’s Atlanta market president and co-head of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Global Commercial Banking practice for the Southeast region.