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July 22, 2013 6:15 PM Upward Mobility and Geography

By Ed Kilgore

David Leonhardt’s troubling piece today in the New York Times on recent data about social mobility is worth dwelling and puzzling over as raising as many questions as it answers. He certainly got my attention by focusing on Atlanta as a place where the combination of segregation by income level and a sprawling economy means the opportunity for access to the kind of jobs that make it possible to rise into the middle-class are exceptionally sparse:

The comparison of metropolitan areas allows researchers to consider local factors that previous mobility studies could not — including a region’s geography. And in Atlanta, the most common lament seems to be precisely that concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and a weak public-transit system make it difficult to get to the job opportunities. “When poor communities are segregated,” said Cindia Cameron, an organizer for 9 to 5, a women’s rights group, “everything about life is harder.”

Anyone who has lived in Atlanta (as I did for the better part of three decades) is aware that these factors are hardly accidental: feverish opposition to the expansion of MARTA, Atlanta’s public transportation system, into the suburbs was acutely associated with the desire to prevent—literally—“mobility” for those people. When there was talk of Cobb County (the close-in surburb where I went to high school) joining MARTA, you could see bumper stickers on cars in the area’s legendary traffic jams reading “Take MARTA to Cobb and Rob.” And as is the case in so many contexts, many of those resisting mobility for others denied it to themselves.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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