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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Poverty more sticky for metro Atlantans; advocates seek explanations

Harvard economics professor Nathaniel Hendren co-authored a study that finds upward economic mobility is rare in metro Atlanta
  • Maggie Lee
  • Harvard economics professor Nathaniel Hendren co-authored a study that finds upward economic mobility is rare in metro Atlanta
Kids who grow up poor in metro Atlanta are among the least likely in the nation to go on to live a rags-to-riches story, according to a Harvard professor and co-author of a controversial study. He repeated his findings on Wednesday in Downtown to a group of local housing advocates and others who want to see the metro region fare better. And some of them say poor public policy is partly to blame.

Five main things correlate with economic immobility, said Harvard economics Professor Nathaniel Hendren, speaking at the quarterly meeting of the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. They are: high racial segregation, high income inequality, low civic engagement, high numbers of broken families and poor school quality, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project's 2013 study on economic mobility in areas nationwide, which Hendren co-authored.

"On all five factors Atlanta falls below the national average," he said.

In Salt Lake City, kids from the lowest income bracket have an 11.5 percent chance of growing into the highest, according to an analysis of IRS data in the study. In metro Atlanta, that figure is four percent.

The study's takeaways - in particular, Atlanta's one-digit score - sparked debate among some metro Atlanta leaders and pushback from Mayor Kasim Reed when the findings were first published.

But if equality were perfect, every child born would have an equal chance - 20 percent - of growing into any one of the five income brackets that the study uses.

The "American narrative" since at least the Second World War is that people move up through hard work and that each generation can do better than the last, said Bill Bolling, founder and Executive Director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, who emceed the event.

But when "folks get stuck in place," that affects the work of people like him who are trying to fight poverty, he said.

It's not enough to boast of a new factory that employees a few hundred people, Bolling said, if folks don't have the education to fill the job or a means to get there.

What he called the "long view" that would include education and transportation infrastructure is "tough" for political leaders.

Hendren's study suggested that segregation correlates with sticky poverty, perhaps because the poorest people are isolated by long commutes from good jobs.

In Georgia public policy, "there's a disdain for poor people. Let's just say it," said Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, which aims to more broadly spread the gains from economic growth.

The forum came a day after a much grander affair, the Metro Atlanta Chamber's annual meeting, where Reed was among the speakers praising the city's business climate. Separately, a month ago, Gov. Nathan Deal touted Site Selection magazine's choice of Georgia as the number one place to do business.

Economic strength and personal immobility make a tale of two cities, maybe?

MAC Vice President of Economic Development Policy Chuck Meadows was also at the housing forum. He put it this way: "We are a good place to do business. We do well on the economic indicators as far as entrepreneurism and investment and job creation but I think the answer is in that social capital index."

That is, Hendren's measure of things such as church-going, PTA membership, and other ways of connecting with people outside family and work.

A sense of community, a sense of civic engagement, and community building "is where Atlanta's lagging," said Meadows.

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