For a moment, let’s forget the pie charts, trend lines, new census poverty data and the research. I want to remember their faces. Fact is, I can’t forget.
Take a tour of the poorest sections of suburban Atlanta, and you’ll find families living in poverty, people who make tough choices every day just to survive. Some forgo meals or pay rent, but go without utilities because there’s no money left. Many live in substandard housing with environmental hazards meeting them as they step out of the front door. Some travel across metro Atlanta on a bus as day laborers looking for work to earn some pocket money. Many are isolated — with little to no mobility — because transportation options are limited yet paramount to their economic success. The brutal reality for many poor families stands in sharp contrast to the notion held by some Georgia lawmakers that poor families living with public supports are on easy street or are putting one over on the system. I challenge lawmakers to disabuse themselves of that notion by taking time to look at their faces.
During a mobile work session last week sponsored by the Atlanta Regional Commission and Partners for Southern Equity, I joined a tour of three neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of poverty in the region, in Norcross, Atlanta’s Thomasville Heights and Riverdale. I gazed out the window, incredulous as we drove through a Norcross mobile-home park. It was a sobering experience that spotlighted the ills and challenges of suburban poverty in metro Atlanta.
My heart ached as MiShawna Moore from Families First described the services her organization provides families in the Norcross community. Families pay $500 monthly rent to live in the mobile homes, but often can’t afford basic necessities like running water or other utilities. Parents brought children to an outdoor pavilion in a steady drizzle to give their children exposure to some early learning experiences provided by Families First. Note to self: This is not some mission field in a third-world country. This is in the suburbs of Atlanta, a region that is home to 16 Fortune 500 companies. And I can’t forget their faces.
From Norcross to Thomasville Heights to Riverdale, families living in generational poverty face seemingly insurmountable odds if left to fend for themselves, much less pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Children full of potential born in these environments are far too often stuck in the cycle, according to a wealth of research on poverty and economic mobility. A child raised in the bottom fifth of the income distribution in Atlanta has only a 4 percent chance of making it to the top fifth of the income distribution, according to a 2013 New York Times story that focused on Atlanta.
Leaders from these communities told our tour group about the challenges and opportunities facing their suburban poverty enclaves. Collaboration is imperative to make a difference. Leadership from the business, faith and philanthropic communities is needed to directly address the needs of these families. And the needs are great across the region, as so many families are experiencing severe hardships and lack of opportunities for jobs, educational services and supports. More importantly, they underscored that elected leaders can’t continue to act as if these challenges don’t exist or that they will magically disappear.
I left reflecting on the role of public policy and how the work of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute might help solve these problems. Issues of concentrated and generational poverty are so complex and multifaceted, seemingly stuck at the intersection of poor health, insufficient education, substandard housing, lack of transportation and little job access. Not to mention the social, emotional, physiological and psychological toll poverty exacts on the brain development of children and its sapping of the soul and heart of the families that live it every day. I’m overwhelmed even thinking about the resources needed to address those challenges. But for the sake of our economy and humanity, we must do something.
For my part, I won’t forget their faces as I ponder GBPI’s work in the coming years to improve economic opportunity for these families. I will redouble my efforts to offer policy solutions Georgia lawmakers can implement to help improve the state’s economic well-being. Our success as Georgians hinges on the ability of these families to achieve something better. We can’t forget that.
This is theFirst of two parts. Check back next week for part two. I’ll share a few solutions we believe can make a difference to promote economic opportunity that will improve Georgia.