Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Metro ATL losing its middle class, good-paying jobs

Metro Atlanta’s middle class is shrinking faster than the Braves’ chances of winning the pennant.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But there’s no question that our region’s middle class is being gradually hollowed out, so gradually that it is easy to go unnoticed. But gauged over time, the trend is crystal clear.

Over the past 15 years, according to Census Bureau data, the percentage of upper- and especially middle-income households in the 29-county Atlanta metro region has declined significantly, with an offsetting increase in the percentage of low-income households. That’s a national phenomenon, but it has hit our own region particularly hard.

How hard? According to a study released this month by the Pew Research Group, the only major metro region to experience a steeper decline in its middle class was Detroit. Other data tell the same story. Median household income in the Atlanta-Roswell-Sandy Springs metro area fell by $14,359, from $83,531 in 1999 to $69,136 in 2014, adjusted for inflation.

Think about that. That’s $14,000 less per household, per year. Multiply that by the number of households in the region, and you have an idea of the overall loss of earning power, spending power and quality of life. Again, the only major metro area with a faster decline was Detroit, with a drop of $14,449.

Statewide numbers are just as bad. Between 1999 and 2014, median household income in Georgia fell by $10,700, a decline again exceeded only by Michigan. In 1999, we ranked 15th in median income. By 2014, we had fallen to 33rd. So when state leaders bemoan the growth of food stamp enrollment in recent years, snidely attributing it to constituents who “have turned the safety net into a hammock,” they ought to look at actual data before stooping to such condescension.

In fact, according to a new study by the University of California, some 49 percent of Georgians working in manufacturing are paid so poorly that they have to rely on the public safety net to make ends meet. The only state with a worse rate is Mississippi. Again, these are working people with a job.

This should not be happening. We’re a SunBelt metro area, not a northern city frozen over for a good part of the year. We’re a metro region deeply integrated into the global economy, not a city gutted by the collapse of manufacturing jobs. But you couldn’t tell it from the economic trends.

Now, one way to reverse such trends would be to invest in education. At every level — individual, regional, state and national — the best way to increase earning power, economic stability and quality of life is through education. Our elected leaders constantly preach that refrain, and they’re right to do so.

But what they preach and what they do are two different things.

Georgia leaders have cut so much from higher education over the past decade — and offset it with tuition increases — that we are one of just seven states to have raised tuition by 60 percent or more since 2007-08, according to the Center for Budget Priorities in Washington. Overall, Georgia has slashed per-student support for higher education by 20 percent, and as tuition has soared the HOPE scholarship program has been whittled back, compounding the problem.

Our leaders remain fixated on cutting taxes, under the theory that reducing the cost of doing business will lead to more business. Setting aside the wisdom of that theory for a moment, doesn’t that same dynamic play out in higher education? If you raise the price of something by 60 percent, aren’t you going to get a lot less of it, at the very time when you need it most?

You also have to wonder whether the region is paying a price for its refusal to invest in itself and re-invent itself. The contrast with a region such as Denver, which committed itself years ago to a transit-oriented future, is stark. As Politico reports, that region found a way to work together toward a common goal, and it's paying off:

"Their ability to work collectively—and the public’s willingness to approve major taxpayer investments—has created a transit system that is already altering Denver’s perception of itself, turning an auto-centric city into a higher-density, tightly-integrated urban center that aims to outcompete the bigger, older coastal cities on the global stage....

In recent years, Denver has been storming national rankings lists: Brookings Institution demographer William Frey’s best (2011) and second best (2013) city for attracting millennials; the best city for college graduates (2014, Apartments.com); the largest increase in residents with college degrees (U.S. Census, 2014); the best commercial real estate market (Coldwell Banker, 2015); the second best for launching a startup (2014, Forbes); and, this year, U.S. News and World Report’s best place to live."

Metro Atlanta, by comparison, is paralyzed. We cannot act, plan or grow as a region because we lack the means to think as a region, and we lack the means to think as a region because we are more fixated on the lines that divide us than the future that unites us. Our state leaders remain committed to an economic development strategy right out of the 19th century, content to wring diminishing returns from the investments made by earlier generations rather than take on the risk of reinvention. Decisions that needed to be made one or two decades ago are still being pushed off to some vague point in the future, and as we look around at peer cities we see the vitality and prosperity that complacency has cost us.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.