Sprawled Out in Atlanta

Sprawled Out in Atlanta: What happens when poverty spreads to a place that wasn’t built for poor people?

Long considered the epitome of red-state suburban comfort, a quintessentially middle-class kind of place where the median income is $65,000 and people pride themselves on owning their own homes, Cobb County now has other superlatives attached to its name. Between 2000 and 2010, the county’s poverty rate doubled to 12 percent. Just last month, the Urban Institute reported that of all counties in the United States, Cobb is where low-income people have the least chance of finding affordable places to live.

This is not an indictment of Cobb County in particular. Rather, what’s happening in Cobb is a microcosm of the dilemma facing suburbs nationwide: a rapid spike in the number of poor people in what once were the sprawling beacons of American prosperity. Think of it as the flip side of the national urban boom: The poverty rate across all U.S. suburbs doubled in the first decade of the millennium—even as America’s cities are transforming in the other direction, toward rising affluence and hipster reinvention. If the old story of poverty in America was crumbling inner cities and drug-addled housing projects, the new story is increasingly one of downscale strip malls and long bus rides in search of ever-scarcer jobs. We can’t understand what’s working in America’s cities unless we also look at what’s not working in the vast suburbs that surround them.

I can’t recommend this article highly enough. I haven’t posted much lately; I’ve been really wrapped up in my own life, but this story brought me right back to reality. As a relatively new resident of Metro Atlanta, I’m still startled when I read this:

Suburban poverty exploded here between 2000 and 2011, rising by 159 percent. Now, 88 percent of the region’s poor people live in suburbs. On its face, there is nothing remarkable about that statistic; after all, metro Atlanta is huge (8,300 square-miles, about the size of Massachusetts), and its population keeps rising (it’s now almost 6 million, equivalent to the population of Missouri). But fewer than 10 percent of us live in the city of Atlanta itself. So it would stand to reason that most poor people are suburbanites; most metro Atlantans are suburbanites, period.

Of course I know about the racially tinged history of mass transit, but knowing that and reading about how the lack of transit directly impacts upward mobility is heartwrenching.

Today in greater Atlanta, the odds of a poor kid making it to the top rung of the economic ladder are lower than any other major metropolitan area in the country—in part because residential segregation, which keeps metro Atlantans separated not only by race but also by class, has created widely disparate public school districts, further immobilizing the poor.

We know this problem exists, and yet

the Brookings Institute has found, fewer than 50 percent of poor suburbanites in metro Atlanta even have access to transit, and what they have is limited. Bus service in Clayton County, which has a 21 percent poverty rate, was canceled outright in 2010. There is no regular mass transit in exurban counties like Paulding or Bartow. In Cherokee County, there are just two fixed bus routes along with a few park-and-ride connections to the Xpress regional bus system, which brings suburban commuters to downtown and midtown Atlanta. If you don’t live or work near one of these nodes, you’re out of luck.

In Cobb County, there’s no bus service at all on Sundays. Cobb Community Transit operates a system that is tiny given the immense size of the county—just 20 routes.

How can we fix this? How do we convince a state full of conservative voters who loathe taxation, who love their cars, and who like to pretend poverty happens to other people that we need to publicly fund mass transit? I don’t know. But we certainly need to figure it out.

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