08/02/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2013

The Truth About Income Mobility in Atlanta: Why the American Dream Is Alive in Our City

A recent Harvard/Berkeley study on the effectiveness of tax policy includes an impressive amount of detail on income mobility in the United States and provides valuable information that can be used by state and local leaders to support numerous policy decisions. What it does not do, and what its authors specifically caution against, is establish an absolute evaluative ranking of regional efficacy at eradicating poverty. Disappointingly, the coverage in the New York Times and other media sources draws conclusions about regional performance based upon either a narrow or flawed reading of the study.

The study limited the definition of social mobility to only those individuals who have made the rare leap from the poorest quintile to the richest quintile. Within the study's context of evaluating tax policy, this was wholly justified. Unfortunately, it appears that some in the news media failed to understand this nuance and misread this definition as an absolute measure of mobility. Furthermore, the article in the New York Times specifically calls out Atlanta, but in reality, the city is used as a stand-in for the entire Southeast. The study's findings are clear that Atlanta is not unique in facing the challenges outlined in the article, but rather that the entire Southeastern region underperforms on the poorest-to-richest mobility metric relative to the rest of the country. Simply put, the New York Times article draws a negative conclusion about Atlanta that is not substantiated by a fuller reading of the study's supporting data and does not accurately reflect the hard work done by many in the city for generations to foster opportunity across racial, ethnic and gender lines.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history knows that the Southeast has long been challenged by entrenched intergenerational poverty largely as a legacy of our challenging past. One of the most difficult legacies of segregation is concentrated poverty that exacerbates the challenges of income disparity: higher crime rates, under performing schools, poor health outcomes and substandard housing options. We are also typically governed by more conservative state legislatures that are less likely to support public transportation funding and strong social safety net initiatives. Most Southern states also have less effective labor laws and as a result, organized labor is not as strong compared to most cities in the Northeast.

Yet, here in Atlanta, we have made remarkable progress over the past 40 years despite these obstacles, and a more sophisticated examination of the data in the study reflects that trend. Against the limited poorest-to-richest mobility metric, even the highest performing regions identified in the article only achieved about 10 percent mobility. Looking more broadly at mobility out of the bottom quintile, Atlanta compares quite favorably with other major American regions cited in the New York Times article.

Nearly 70 percent of Atlanta children in the bottom-income quintile escaped from that group. That was essentially the same as for Dallas and Denver and 1 to 2 percentage points better than for New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Phoenix, Portland, OR, and Washington DC. None of this information was reflected in the New York Times article or other media coverage of the study. In short, if social mobility is considered in a wider context from the lowest rung, Atlanta does slightly better than most of the major cities identified in the article. Surely helping a larger percentage of people moderately improve their economic status is a better outcome than significantly helping only a small percentage.

Our city boasts a diverse population, strong business incentives, an expansive university system, solid logistics infrastructure and the kind of quality of life that compels thousands of Northeasterners to move here every year. Georgia is now the 10th largest state in the nation and Atlanta is the 9th largest metropolitan statistical area with a population of almost 5.3 million; over the last decade we were among America's five fastest growing MSAs.

Atlanta is home to the world's busiest passenger airport with more than 95 million passengers per year and with an economic impact of $32 billion. MARTA, our rapid transit system, is the 9th largest in the nation but the only one of the 10 largest that receives almost no state funding. We have the fourth highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies and more than 57 colleges and universities in our city and region. Among young people between the ages of 18 and 24, 60 percent are enrolled in college, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Per capita income in the city increased by one percent even though it declined by 12 percent statewide.

More encouragingly, both Republican and Democratic leaders have begun to work together to address the types of issues that affect social mobility across racial, ethnic and gender lines. Last summer, a 10-county transportation referendum that garnered bipartisan support from Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and me passed in the city of Atlanta, but did not carry enough regional votes to go into effect and generate more than $8 billion in infrastructure improvements. But it will not be the last effort to try to address the region's traffic congestion and transportation challenges. We also have a renewed focus on improving education in our city's public schools, which offer the best path to upward social mobility for thousands of children. And we are partnering on initiatives to bring more jobs into the city, from Fortune 500 company headquarter relocations such as PulteGroup Inc. to new entrepreneurial ventures and IT firms such as Athenahealth Inc.

The serious problems caused by intergenerational poverty, stagnant wages and lack of opportunity are ones that we, as a nation, have ignored for too long at our own peril. In Atlanta, we need to continue to focus on supporting lower-income families who have escaped poverty to continue their upward movement. Those are challenges that we must address now, and as mayor of Atlanta, I am committed to doing so.