Pandemic, race relations among ‘biggest problems’ for metro Atlanta residents

Atlanta Community Food Bank workers distribute food donations. The Food Bank works with over 700 nonprofits to serve more than 755,000 people each year.
Atlanta Community Food Bank workers distribute food donations. The Food Bank works with over 700 nonprofits to serve more than 755,000 people each year.

In March, Shondra Lawrence, an event service manager for four years at the Atlanta Marriott Buckhead Hotel and Conference Center, was furloughed. The hotel had shut its doors when the hospitality industry took a hit during the coronavirus pandemic.

After more than a month off of work, Lawrence began receiving unemployment benefits, which lasted until Oct. 31. Then the Cobb County resident was laid off. Her health benefits had ended in June, and additional assistance from the CARES Act ended in July. She had no choice but to apply for public assistance and utilize other community resources to help feed and provide health care for her two teenage sons.

“A lot of people are hurting and aren’t making what they used to make ... they have to stand in food lines and go to food banks,” said Lawrence, 40, who fears the hospitality industry will not recover anytime soon. “You have to start all over again no matter what age to find a new field and a new career.”

The pandemic has thrown the world into a tailspin, and in metro Atlanta, the impact weighs heavily on residents, according to the 2020 Metro Atlanta Speaks survey from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

For the first time in almost a decade, metro area residents ranked public health and race relations among the top five biggest problems in the region. Both issues had previously ranked near the bottom of resident concerns since 2013, the first year the survey was conducted, while transportation and crime, also among the 2020 top five problems, occupied the top spots.

“We really wanted to focus this survey on helping communities and helping residents figure out a way to get through this pandemic,” said Mike Carnathan, senior manager of research and analytics for ARC. He hopes the data, presented on Friday at a virtual “State of the Region” breakfast, will spark the kind of conversations that help policymakers gain a deeper understanding of the pulse of the region.

Each year since 2013, ARC, the planning agency that works with community organizations to improve the quality of life in the region, has presented the Metro Atlanta Speaks survey. Conducted in July and August by Kennesaw State University’s A.L. Burruss Institute of Public Service and Research, this year, more than 4,000 residents in 10 counties were surveyed by phone and online.

In some ways, Lawrence is lucky. She had saved enough money to cover her rent even as her income dropped, and in September, she was able to secure a job working from home as a health care adviser, but the setbacks for her and many other residents are real. She is among the 1 in 4 residents who have been laid off, terminated or furloughed because of the pandemic, and the 1 in 5 residents who have received assistance from a food pantry or church since March.

Almost half of survey respondents had their wages reduced or had to quit their jobs for safety reasons. One-third are working from home, which may explain why transportation has declined in importance, at least temporarily, researchers said. Concerns about crime remained in the top five biggest problems. By October, Atlanta had more homicides than all of 2019, even as overall crime had decreased, according to Atlanta Police Department data.

More than half of survey respondents (58%) personally knew someone who contracted COVID-19, and 86% say they wore a mask most or all of the time in the past month.

Those numbers hit hard for Deitre Terrell, who recovered from the virus but lost her husband, George Terrell, 73, to it in May. Instead of celebrating their wedding anniversary in October, Terrell was leaning on her grief counseling group for support. She has strong feelings about locals who flout the guidance of health professionals.

“I feel they haven’t had anybody close to them die (from COVID-19),” said Terrell, who recounted a recent visit to a retail store where a young woman and her two children shopped without wearing masks.

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Terrell is also among the 30% of locals who said COVID-19 has posed a great threat to both their health and finances. Without her husband’s income, the Douglasville resident is applying for a loan modification on her home. “If they say no, I can manage, but with it, I can continue to live how I was living,” she said.

For many residents, the recovery from the pandemic will be slow. Atlanta is an increasingly diverse region, and younger residents (ages 18-34) are having a fundamentally different experience than residents over age 65, Carnathan said.

Younger residents are struggling more with challenges from the pandemic, and more of them relied on assistance from food banks, he said. More younger residents (77%) agreed that discrimination against Black residents was a problem. “That gets back to the diversity of our region, which is really concentrated in our younger age cohorts,” Carnathan said.

But almost none of the survey respondents could accurately quantify the wealth gap between Black and white residents in Atlanta. “We have a lot of education to do when it comes to identifying the wealth gap,” Carnathan said.

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Part of the confusion is likely due to Atlanta’s persistent reputation as the “Black Mecca” despite data that consistently indicates a different scenario, said Latresa McLawhorn Ryan, executive director of the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative.

The organization has past survey data showing the average income for a Black family in Atlanta is about $28,000 compared to $84,000 for white families. About 69% of Black families are liquid asset poor compared to 22% of white families, she said.

“This tracks with data from across the country, but Atlanta is unique in that we are No. 1 in income inequality and at the bottom of the list in terms of economic mobility," McLawhorn Ryan said. “The pandemic has exacerbated this across the board but has brought to light disparities that already existed.”

It is one thing to hear anecdotal stories, but seeing these struggles quantified in numbers really brings it home to people, said Kate Sweeney, spokeswoman for ARC. This year in particular, the data is meant to be actionable.

“If you don’t actually talk about it, if you don’t actually debate about it, if you don’t get into ‘good trouble,’ it is just going to lie on the shelf and not do anybody any good,” Carnathan said.


For the first time since 2013, the first year of survey data, respondents in the 2020 Metro Atlanta Speaks survey from the Atlanta Regional Commission ranked public health and race relations among the top five biggest problems in metro Atlanta. Crime and transportation remained among the top five concerns of metro residents as they have for almost a decade.

Top 5 Biggest Problems in 2020

1. Public Health

2. Crime

3. Economy

4. Race Relations

5. Transportation

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