Building a Ladder from Poverty to Prosperity and Economic Mobility

Over the last three days I’ve been thinking deeply about the article that appeared in the New York Times on Monday, In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters. More specifically, I’ve been lamenting the fact that our city, Atlanta, holds the dubious distinction of being one of the cities where it is least likely that a child born into poverty has a chance to ever realize the American dream. Only 4% of children in Atlanta born into a family with income of less than $25,000 a year will rise to become part of our community’s middle-class. This horrendous disparity is compounded in Atlanta where over 30% of children live in poverty.

The plight of these children, and their denial of opportunity, contradicts in the most visceral way our posture as a community ‘too busy to hate’ and a community that is touted as the Mecca of opportunity and equity in the South. As I began to contemplate “why”, I realized that the true question is not why are children in our community, who are born into poverty, forever destined to remain in poverty. The real question is why do we as a community, when faced with the opportunities and choices, continuously chose to fail to address the conditions that sentence impoverished children, and their children’s children, to intergenerational lifetimes of poverty.

Unfortunately, our failure to remediate the conditions that perpetuate poverty are deeply rooted in our misperceptions and beliefs about poor people and their complicity and/or willingness to transcend the impoverished conditions that envelope their lives. However, as highlighted in the article and supported by the study’s data, where a child and her family reside and the conditions that surround them are the most predictive factors of her likely economic future and opportunity. In addition to whether she was born into a two-parent household, her access to high performing educational institutions; whether she lives in a mixed income neighborhood; and whether the residents in her city are civically engaged, are the constructs of her path from poverty to prosperity and economic mobility. This probability and potential is emphasized by the study’s finding that children who moved from a city like Atlanta, where the chances of mobility from poverty are slim to none, to a city where mobility from poverty to higher income brackets is more likely, almost did as well economically as children who spent their entire childhood in cities with high mobility.

Without a doubt, where you are born in this country truly matters. We are not only our brothers’ keeper; we are the solution to our brothers’ distress. We can be the architects of opportunity and potential for children in our community to rise out of poverty and we can ensure that children where we live have the opportunity to achieve success. The study confirms what many of us know; that each and every one of us individually, and all of us collectively, can impact the lives of the children around us and their opportunities to be successful. It simply requires us to have the will and commitment to address those conditions that sentence children to a lifetime of poverty. Clearly, as highlighted in the article, if we would commit to justice and equity in our education system; ensure access to affordable and safe housing; the ability to attain employment  that pays a true living wage;  and access to reliable transportation, children who now live in poverty will not only have an opportunity to climb the ladder of success, there would actually be a ladder  to prosperity for their families and, ultimately, our entire community will be forever enriched.

Kim E. Anderson, Chief Executive Officer.