keeping us poor

Most of you know the feeling. You could lose a few pounds and you wish your clothes fit better, but you feel pretty good – still young, still vibrant. And then you see a recent photo.

It’s like that. For a native son and life-long southerner (excepting two years in Cleveland, OH), the Distressed Communities Index (DCI) map published Thursday in a report by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) is profoundly troubling.

Distressed Communities Index (DCI) map published Thursday in a report by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG)
Economic Innovation Group Distressed Communities Index, 2016


Dark reds are the most economically distressed communities; dark green are most prosperous. The ranking scale and methodology are explained on the EIG website, where you can also find the full report.

For those (like me) who missed it when EIG launched last March, it’s a DC-based non-profit founded by entrepreneurs including Facebook’s first President Sean Parker and investor/philanthropist Ron Conway. The group’s stated mission is “to advance solutions that empower entrepreneurs and investors to forge a more dynamic and entrepreneurial economy throughout America.”

It’s disturbing to see the stark concentration of most distressed communities in the southeast.

Politically, as a progressive independent, I want to blame decades of conservative GOP senators, governors, and legislators blindly following fiscal policies that aren’t working. I believe there is some truth to that – certainly to the extent these men and women failed to recognize and act on real issues of poverty. At the same time, I expect the situation could have looked the same a century ago.

Socially, it’s impossible (at least for me) to ignore linkages to an agrarian past – an economy fueled by slave labor and the lingering effects of a people freed but not yet free to prosper. Also evident are the ravages of war on a region which lost. Frustratingly, the modern south is still a culture more obsessed with preserving the past than with staring soberly at the present and creating a brighter future.

When I drill down to the counties map for Georgia, another interesting pattern emerges.

Georgia DCI Data for U.S. Zip Codes by State

The concentrated dark-green counties of metro Atlanta form an oasis of relative prosperity which transitions quickly blood-red as my gaze shifts south and east.

I see contrasting battle lines in exurban communities like my own Newton County, whose economic numbers are moderately good, though not as good as closer-in metro counties. The map suggests the path to prosperity lies west of us, but old-timers here and the politicians they elect are hell-bent on keeping our county from “becoming Atlanta.” They’re building a firewall north to south along Georgia Highway 36 just like the unsuccessful ones people tried to build in DeKalb, Gwinnett, and Rockdale earlier in my lifetime.

Like many, I find the suburban experiment started in the 50s and accelerated in 70s is failing. I believe cities offer a more sustainable model for communities that work for all. I believe that’s why we see new cities like Brookhaven, Dunwoody, and Sandy Springs springing up around Atlanta, and older ones like Decatur, Doraville, Chamblee, and Woodstock revitalizing. But, I don’t want to use the map to prove a point, only to suggest the data can lead us to more fruitful discussions.

One map is not the be-all/end-all for discerning what makes a great community. There is much to be said for lower traffic, less congestion, and a quieter way of life. But, economic facts show things are not sustainable as they are now. These aggregate views of counties and zip codes gloss over the reality of people doing well and not so well in every locale. But, we can’t continue to ignore the things not working for a large segment of our population. And, when we zoom back from the map, it’s glaringly obvious a disproportionate number of those folks are my neighbors.

Back to politics, I can’t dismiss the ironic alignment of the Distressed Communities Index map and the electoral map for the President. I appreciate fully why Americans in the southeast would be fed up with how things are and a government they hold responsible. But, the GOP candidates in particular are loath to discuss real poverty and long past declaring ours a post-racial world. For those who would “Make America Great Again,” show me the historical map that leads us to those answers.

I’m not suggesting answers are simple or clear – far from it. But, the questions are glaringly obvious, thanks to the data-centered work of groups like EIG. Now, will any of us take the time to examine the facts and ponder together what they tell us? Or, will we just get lost in the yelling and name calling.

Maybe the red on the map is just my embarrassment. I’ve seen the photo, and it’s just not flattering.

Images: from the 2016 Distressed Communities Index (DCI) created by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG).
Maurice Carter

Maurice Carter

Maurice Carter is President and Founder of Breathe-Water, LLC, where he uses community building, storytelling, consulting, and social media to enable businesses, non-profits, and communities to understand and harness forces for positive change. An Atlanta native living in Covington, GA, Maurice is an active community volunteer, a freelance columnist, and an advocate for causes that build community and promote thoughtful responses to the opportunities and challenges of our day.