Reduce economic immobility

The American Dream is obscure for many of Atlanta’s poor. A recent economic study makes it plain.

The chances that a poor metro Atlanta child will eventually earn a higher income than his or her parents is slim. Bottom-to-top movement, generationally, is unlikelier in metro Atlanta than most places in (or beyond) the South, including metro areas that economically compete with us like Charlotte and Nashville.

Income immobility in the South is partly a legacy of weak labor rights, stingy governments and Jim Crow. Income immobility in metro Atlanta also results from contemporary local conditions.

Our suburbs now host unprecedented poverty. Suburban economic insecurity from unemployment and a decline in wealth are culprits. Underdeveloped suburban transit and philanthropy also foster suburban poverty. And income segregation and income inequality, two correlates of lower income mobility, tighten the suburban poverty trap.

Our new, breakaway cities also stymie income mobility. Their capture and hoarding of commercial resources undermines the ethos and practice of shared responsibility to increase opportunities for all. Their deliberately low government expenditures, another factor of income immobility, reduce civic capacity to cut suburban and urban poverty. Their existence restricts upward mobility in metro Atlanta.

Low-performing and scandalous public schools in our older cities and suburbs and struggling single-parent families put poor kids on the slowest and narrowest economic escalators. Unfortunately, when acquisition and retention of knowledge by poorer kids are low and single-parent families are numerous, income immobility worsens.

If we don’t improve the prospects of poor children in metro Atlanta to climb past their parents on the income ladder, we should expect to remain low on many socioeconomic rankings, thus jeopardizing growth and prosperity.

Better access to quality public education for our poorer kids in cities (and suburbs) will improve income mobility. Improving the skills, relationships, opportunities and determination of their parents to escape poverty will help, too.

How?

Spatially concentrate more of our growth near the poor. Build more mixed-use development and mixed-income communities. Invest in a real metropolitan transit system. That’ll increase the probability that opportunities for the prosperous stop bypassing our poor.

Income immobility, like our other great challenges of traffic congestion and air pollution, is a metropolitan problem requiring metro solutions. Certainly, Atlantans question regional action and we distrust our public leaders to improve society through it. Yet greater cross-community cooperation and resource sharing are necessary now to improve where more of the poor stand economically and where our metro area stands in competition for growth and prosperity.

We must reduce income immobility. If not, many of metro Atlanta’s poor will waste their imagination on the American Dream.

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