A first-blush look at the city of Atlanta’s economy suggests a post-recessionary rebound with home sales up, construction cranes rising and new restaurants opening from Inman Park to Buckhead.
Looks, though, can deceive. The city’s 11.2 percent unemployment rate is more than two percentage points higher than the two counties, Fulton and DeKalb, in which it lies.
Atlanta’s jobless ills become even more pronounced once the rates in Cobb and Gwinnett, both at 7.4 percent, are considered.
While an urban-suburban employment divide is common across Georgia and the United States, trends in metro Atlanta exacerbate the split. Atlanta — despite its pockets of prosperity — is poorer and less-educated overall than the region.
The city was also hit harder by the Great Recession than most communities, losing thousands of jobs in key industries, including construction, finance and warehousing. The net migration of jobs from Atlanta to Dunwoody, Alpharetta and beyond continues. And the city hasn’t fared as well as its neighbors during the slow economic recovery that began in the summer of 2009.
Marquee development projects in north Atlanta (Buckhead Atlanta), Midtown (Ponce City Market) and south Atlanta (Porsche, Volkswagen) portray a city on the upswing. And more than 9,000 intown apartments are under construction or planned, according to one industry analysis.
“You know, there’s a lot of construction going on now — you can go down any road and see it,” said Corey Carroll, awaiting an interview with a jail bonding company earlier this week at a downtown job fair. “But then a lot of people in Atlanta have lost homes, cars, families. I’m just praying things get better everywhere.”
It could take a while for Atlanta to reach employment equilibrium with its neighbors. Five years ago, the jobless rate in Atlanta was 5.9 percent, only one half of a percentage point higher than Fulton and DeKalb counties. In February, according to the latest jobs report by the Georgia Department of Labor, it was 11.2 percent.
That was up from 10.9 percent in January. The gap widened during the recession, but has remained fairly constant for the past year.
Unemployment statistics are based upon where people live, not where they work.
The city’s population growth paled the last decade versus the region. Between 1990 and 2010, according to the ARC, the region added an average of 77,500 people each year. Atlanta, though, added only 240 people per year. Fewer people combined with more layoffs equals a disproportionately higher unemployment rate.
Jobs in metro Atlanta that were accessible to less-educated city dwellers disappeared in droves the last decade. Two military bases closed, as did two automobile plants. Warehouses also moved further into the suburbs. Construction jobs all but evaporated.
White collar workers didn’t escape unscathed either. The region’s finance and insurance industry, centered around Midtown and Buckhead, has lost nearly 15,000 jobs since early 2008, according to the Census Bureau. About 15 percent of real estate jobs also disappeared.
“When we were coming up, a high school diploma would get you a decent job. Now you need a college diploma just to get an entry-level job,” said Deborah Lum who runs the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency. “And during the recession a lot of people got laid off who are now taking lower-paying jobs and (competing) with entry-level workers.”
Suburban workers face similar challenges, of course. But urban workers are more likely to start with two strikes against them: they’re poorer and less-educated.
Nearly one of every four Atlantans lives below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. Region-wide, one of every six does.
The graduation rate for Atlanta Public Schools is 52 percent, considerably lower than in Cobb and Gwinnett, for example.
“City unemployment rates are always higher than metropolitan areas and that has to do with demographic composition,” said Josh Mitchell, a research associate at the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington. “Groups that are more likely to have lower levels of education and are perhaps younger … will produce a permanent gap in the unemployment rate between cities and surrounding areas.”
A single mother, for example, can’t hold a steady job if she can’t find day care. Owning, insuring and gassing up a car, to reach the low-level jobs that migrate further from the urban core, is prohibitively expensive for many.
For many job seekers, public transporation in Atlanta and other local urban areas is inadequate in connecting workers with jobs, especially for second- and third-shift nurses or assembly line workers. Clayton County, for example, canceled local mass transit in 2010 and Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton and other counties have curtailed service.
“Right now, when I pursue a job, I always try to make sure it’s on a bus line,” said Carroll, 36, a laid-off clerk with five kids and no car.
Employment gaps aren’t limited to Atlanta. Lawrenceville, for example, notched an 11.1 percent unemployment rate in February, 3.7 points above Gwinnett’s.
The divide isn’t unique to Georgia either. The city of Los Angeles had a 12.1 percent jobless rate in January, two points higher than the metropolitan region.
The trend could be turning, though not necessarily for desirable reasons. More low-wage jobs have been created since the recession ended than medium- or higher-wage jobs. The city of Atlanta also averaged 799 newcomers between 2010 and 2012, more than three times the average of the prior decade.
Meanwhile, poverty rose 122 percent in the Atlanta suburbs the last decade.
“We may be able to see those rates between the core cities and suburbs and exurbs narrow up,” said Jim Skinner, an ARC planner. “And if we get declining suburbs, in terms of poverty, then we could flip the other way.”
Unemployment rates by percent for Atlanta area cities, February 2013:
City of Atlanta: 11.2
East Point: 13.0
Regional unemployment rates by percent for major U.S. cities and surrounding metropolitan areas, January 2013:
Atlanta: 10.9 8.7
Los Angeles: 12.1 10.0
Miami: 10.5 8.2
Chicago: 10.9 9.9
New York: 9.9 9.4
Houston: 6.9 6.7
Sources: Georgia Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.