City Politics

North and South

Atlanta’s geographic income inequality

By Daniel Lee

It’s a beautiful summer morning in Atlanta. The streets bustle with activity as civilians carry out their daily routines. In the center of the city lies the Coca-Cola headquarters, a symbol highlighting the significance of Atlanta as an American icon and a pillar to the Southern economy. Between the $420 billion Atlanta generates towards the United States economy and the numerous tech titan headquarters and offices located in the city, it’s no surprise many see Atlanta as the shining jewel of the south and the capital of the southern United States. However, beneath its extravagant skylines and bustling economy lies something that is often overlooked. In the many ways Atlanta is the beacon of the Southern economy, Atlanta is also a shining beacon of income inequality. In fact, a report conducted by the Brookings Institute has found that Atlanta has the greatest income disparity of the United States’ 100 largest metropolitan areas when comparing household income between the 20th percentile and the 95th percentile. When the income inequality is inspected at an even further level, an alarming racial trend emerges. A study conducted by Deloitte has found that out of the 20.4% of Atlanta individuals living in poverty in Atlanta, 74.2% consists of black residents. Additionally, a study conducted by the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative has found that the median income of white households is $83,722 compared to a median income of $28,105 for black households. With these alarming statistics, there lies a fundamental question: how did this trend develop and how can it be explained?

Urban Planning:

The trend behind income inequality between races can be traced back to the era of Jim Crow and, subsequently, to the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and urban planning practices. Approved by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the nationwide program seeked to improve the infrastructure of the United States through building 41,000 miles of interstate highways. With Jim Crow Laws being in effect at time, local politicians in Atlanta conspired to deliberately construct interstate highways passing through Atlanta that created a divide between the northern and southern part of Atlanta. The Federal Highway Act resulted in a highway that separated black communities, which were concentrated mostly in the southern part of Atlanta, from white communities, which were concentrated in the northern part of Atlanta. As a result of this development, the majority of wealth and urban development in the latter half of the 20th century became concentrated in the northern part of Atlanta, meaning that economic resources were strained from the southern part of Atlanta. This led to a disparity between the urban development and the magnitude of the job market of the northern and southern part of Atlanta, exacerbating the income inequality between races. The continuation of these trends, stemming from the systemic racism that has infiltrated even governmental infrastructure, means that wealth in modern day Atlanta is still concentrated in about the same regions. This historic disparity combined with contemporary trends in gentrification explain persisting income disparity and explain why Atlanta is at the top of the list for American regions of wealth inequality.

Urban Sprawl:

The city of Atlanta has been growing at a rapid pace. With these developments, many individuals in the northern part of Atlanta have been moving out of the city of Atlanta to the suburbs since the 1990s to avoid crime and the rising cost of living. These developments have exacerbated income inequality in a multitudes of ways. From an economic standpoint and the perspective of the job market, this has led to a shift in the job market towards the northern part of Atlanta and into the suburbs of Atlanta. Consequently, the accessibility of these jobs have been reduced for minority communities in southern Atlanta due commute to these jobs. Additionally, the shift in capital has led to a reduction in funds available to local governments of the city of Atlanta resulting in the reduction of the quality of the city’s public education system. These reductions in quality have been particularly consequential to distressed neighborhoods of southern Atlanta due to making the young adult population ill-equipped to compete for skilled jobs. The fact that most poor schools are disproportionately black increase the likelihood of African American youths facing economic challenges in the future. It’s clear that education, living situation, career competitiveness, and race all remain connected in Atlanta today.

Data from WABE // Graphic by Tia Vaish

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