A View from Atlanta, Epicenter of Suburban Poverty in America

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  • October 08, 2013

No U.S. region matches Atlanta in its extent and rapid increase of suburban poverty. Between 2000 and 2011, Atlanta’s suburban poor population rose by 159%, and by 2012, 88% of the metro area’s poor population lived outside the city of Atlanta. To top it off, the region recently ranked near the bottom in a study of major U.S. metro areas on economic mobility for low-income families, a finding that researchers attributed in part to the high degree of racial and economic segregation that characterizes the region.

Against that alarming backdrop, in early September the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum hosted me for a half-day event focused on understanding and responding to the suburbanization of poverty in the region. The Housing Forum has a strong history of engaging regional actors on issues not only around affordable housing, but also around related challenges facing lower-income populations and communities throughout the Atlanta metro.

Among the topics discussed at the Forum was whether and how poverty was “re-concentrating” in the region’s suburban communities, including the extent to which public housing reform and rebirth of some central-city neighborhoods was responsible for those dynamics. Counties that border the city of Atlanta such as DeKalb, Clayton, and Gwinnett have experienced among the faster increases in poverty rates and poor population in recent years, and the share of housing voucher holders living in the region’s suburbs increased significantly during the 2000s. But nearly all suburban jurisdictions in the metro area have seen poverty rise, and much more of that increase seems attributable to the region’s broader economic woes and overhang from the housing market crash, versus a smaller redistribution of already-poor families from the city to the suburbs.

Atlanta continues to face challenges to acting regionally. Despite its reputation as the capital of the “New South” and the city “too busy to hate” coming out of the Civil Rights era, the Atlanta region remains very divided by race and class. In 2012, the region voted down by a wide margin a new special local sales tax to fund transportation projects, including expansions to its rapid transit system that could have benefited lower-income suburban workers. Today, it is experiencing a new wave of municipal incorporations, which could further complicate efforts to reduce fragmentation in service delivery and ensure a balanced distribution of jobs and housing for workers and families across the region.

Many of these issues can be seen just within DeKalb County, where I also participated in a roundtable hosted by Emory University’s Center for Community Partnerships. The county contains a portion of the city of Atlanta, has both wealthy and poor areas, and has undergone extensive demographic and economic changes in the past decade that resulted in its poverty rate rising from 11 percent to 19 percent. For county officials, challenges include linking their lower-income workers and communities to decent job opportunities that may be in other parts of the region (e.g., around the airport in Fulton and Clayton counties); extending the economic development potential of existing assets like Emory and the Centers for Disease Control; and providing the services and supports that communities—especially rapidly increasing immigrant populations along corridors like the Buford Highway—need, at scale.

That question of how to achieve scale was present throughout the day’s discussions. Nonprofit density in Atlanta’s suburbs remains only one-fifth to one-third as high as in the city itself, so collaboration among existing providers, and doing more to help skilled regional intermediaries like the Atlanta Community Food Bank and the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership increase their footprint in the region’s suburbs, may be logical first steps to dealing with what is now, more than ever, a shared challenge across the Atlanta metro.

Alan Berube

Alan’s presentation from the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum event:

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