Opportunity Atlas graphic

The Opportunity Atlas — relying on data from 2000-2010 census collections and federal income tax returns — is an interactive tool developed by Harvard University and Brown University researchers that breaks down the demographics of 20 million Americans whose socioeconomic statuses were studied from childhood into their 30s.

Socioeconomic disparity is evident in Athens-Clarke County based on data showing a roughly 34 percent poverty rate. A new database released by the U.S Census Bureau and the Opportunity Insights project shows these numbers may only tell half of the story.

The Opportunity Atlas — relying on data from 2000-2010 census collections and federal income tax returns — is an interactive tool developed by Harvard University and Brown University researchers that breaks down the demographics of 20 million Americans whose socioeconomic statuses were studied from childhood into their 30s.

It helps make predictions for children nationwide — assuming patterns will stay consistent — using a parent’s financial characteristics and child’s race and gender to identify potential outcomes. The atlas allows users to select combinations of these demographics to analyze on small and large scales, focusing on how a neighborhood’s characteristics either limit or propel kids toward future opportunities.


“It’s not like the South is struggling with resources; the South has access to resources. It just has a racial history in which we don't see all [people].”

- Lemuel LaRoche, member of the the Network for Southern Economic Mobility


“That's incredibly surprising because so far so many theories of what drives intergenerational mobility has to do with ideas about families, family culture or larger forces of discrimination that operate at a larger level,” said Ian Schmutte, associate professor in the University of Georgia Terry College of Business economics department. “[Because] there could be something happening at the neighborhood level that’s not operating through either of those channels is really quite surprising.”

In light of the database’s release, Schmutte plans to organize an undergraduate research seminar in the university’s 2019 fall semester to help economics majors during their senior thesis projects. In partnership with Gregorio Caetano, assistant economics professor in Terry, the seminar will provide students with a space to discuss and ask questions about the Opportunity Atlas.

“We definitely want to understand exactly what happens in that particular neighborhood that would be a positive engine for certain kinds of people but a negative engine for certain kinds of people,” Caetano said.

The data

According to census data for Athens, kids under the age of 18 make up about 17.4 percent of the total population estimate of 125,691 as of July 2017.

The average individual income for white males from high income families is about $40,000 a year, versus white females, black males and black females from high income families, which averaged around $30,000 a year.


“I think this points out a sad trend. Not everyone starts equal.”

- Cristin Catlin, Athens resident


White males from low income families also had significantly higher average individual incomes as compared to white females, black males and black females from low income families.

Across all categories is an average hourly wage of around $16.70 per hour, with black individuals always lagging behind white individuals across parent income levels. Black males and females had more equal hourly pay as compared to white males and females.

This type of racial disparity is common for southern cities, according to past studies conducted by Opportunity Insights that show states like Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina have very low upward mobility.

In a 2014 study by The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Atlanta ranked second to last in upward mobility among a list of 50 major cities. According to the study, children born into low income families have a 4.5 percent chance of rising economically once they become adults.

“It’s not like the South is struggling with resources; the South has access to resources,” said Lemuel LaRoche, member of the the Network for Southern Economic Mobility.  “It just has a racial history in which we don't see all [people].”


“It seems like maybe whatever initiatives are there have not perhaps been enough.”

- Ian Schmutte, UGA professor


ACC is a member of NSEM, a multi-county think-tank focused on analyzing socioeconomic inequality in existing community systems and setting corresponding priorities for the local government over a two-year period. LaRoche said the group looks at national and local data to determine what barriers prevent young people from moving into the economic upper and middle classes.

LaRoche believes historical segregation in the South is the key element in present-day economic disparity. Athens resident Cristin Catlin thinks the large gap between black and white children is disturbing.

“I think this points out a sad trend. Not everyone starts equal,” Catlin said. “It would be great if this information was used to invest in areas where more struggle is occurring because everyone should have the opportunity to excel.”

Catlin has children in the Clarke County School District and expressed concern about the financial and timely cost of afterschool programs, saying lower income, working class parents struggle when free programs or transportation to these programs are not available.

Other elements of the data showed high school graduation rate at an average of 86 percent across all categories, with males lagging behind females in every income level and race.


“As people are looking at the issue, people are looking at it through their own lens.”

- Lemuel LaRoche, member of the the Network for Southern Economic Mobility


Sixty-eight percent of people across all categories stayed in Athens from childhood to adulthood, and 20 percent stayed in the same “tract,” described as an area slightly larger than traditional neighborhoods on a map.

Response

Both Schmutte and Caetano have analyzed opportunity gaps and socioeconomic disparity in the past but always from an economic perspective rather than a social one. Regardless, Schmutte thinks there’s more to be done to tackle the issues. He’s been in Athens for eight years and thinks local policymakers have been doing a better job in recent years discussing potential solutions.

“It seems like maybe whatever initiatives are there have not perhaps been enough,” Schmutte said. “But I also don’t want to be a critic and stand outside and throw too many stones at a process that I am not fully aware of.”

According to the atlas, the overall job growth rate in Athens between 2004 and 2013 was 0.8 percent. However, tracts on the map show differentiation — Carr’s Hill and Boulevard neighborhoods show negative growth rates as compared to others around them, like Normaltown and Five Points.

Multiple studies have described a strong link between job growth and economic growth, with gross domestic product typically shifting at about the same time. According to the Federal Reserve, a healthy labor market in all areas is important for a city’s wellbeing.

LaRoche thinks economic fragmentation in neighborhoods should, on the small scale, be tackled through communication.

“As people are looking at the issue, people are looking at it through their own lens,” LaRoche said. “How do we start getting these different sectors to look at data, to start having these dialogues and start utilizing each others strengths.”

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