Atlanta, once again the nation’s leader in income inequality

‘What’s shrinking is the middle class’


Congrats, Atlanta! You’ve managed to defend the dubious title of having the widest gap between its wealthiest and poorest residents.

Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, today has published a report showing that Atlanta has the highest income inequality among the nation’s 50 largest cities. It’s the second year in a row the city has topped San Francisco, Boston, New York, other American cities.

The study looks at households in the 95th percentile of income — which in Atlanta averages out to about $288,000 — compared against what the 20th percent of households receive for their paychecks — a little less than $15,000 on average. According to the findings, which are based on data from the 2013 American Community Survey, the city’s income inequality levels are more than twice the national average.

Brookings’ findings follow several other damning reports about local poverty levels. In 2013, one study found that metro Atlanta residents who were born into low-income families had the hardest time moving up to a higher class that any other metro region — an indicator known as economic mobility. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute later that year reported that nearly one in five Georgians live in poverty. But they’re not all bad: One Georgia State University study, which compared both city and metro-area income inequality levels, shows that metro Atlanta’s gap between the rich and poor ranks 18th among major metro areas.

According to GBPI Executive Director Alan Essig, the Great Recession halted many of the Atlanta’s construction projects, which caused many of the city’s middle class jobs to disappear. Those positions haven’t entirely returned just yet, he says.

“We have a large number of very wealthy people in the city and a large number of folks in poverty,” he tells CL. “What’s shrinking is the middle class. It’s hard to have a vibrant city without a middle class.”

Essig points to three particular issues — more transit, increased access to affordable housing, and a higher minimum wage — that could help close Atlanta’s income inequality gap. Though the city can do some things on its own, he says officials’ “hands are tied” by the state on certain issues. To make progress, he says city and state officials must partner together moving forward.

Mayor Kasim Reed spokeswoman Anne Torres says the mayor, who last year criticized the study’s “stunning” findings, hasn’t changed his underlying stance toward tackling the complex issue of inequality. Last year he said the city worked to bring better pay jobs to the city while increasing the minimum wage for city employees. He also pointed to efforts to improve Atlanta Public Schools, lower recidivism, and take strides toward redeveloping Turner Field and Fort McPherson.

Reed spokeswoman Jenna Garland tells CL the mayor has taken additional efforts to address inequality. That includes campaigning for Clayton County MARTA bus service and helping NCR relocate its headquarters to Midtown, which she says will bring “well-paying, family-supporting” jobs into the city. Invest Atlanta will continue working along those lines in the coming year, she says.

“Both last year and this year, Invest Atlanta is working on multiple strategies to address the different economic factors that contribute to income inequality, including a housing strategy and incentives for startup technology firms to launch and stay in Atlanta,” Garland says.

This story has been updated to include a response from the mayor’s office.