Atlanta’s population rebounded in the 1990s, but Census 2000 reveals that rapid suburban growth continued even as widening social and economic divisions split the core.
After losing population in the 1980s, the City of Atlanta gained 22,000 residents in the 1990s. Over the decade, however, Atlanta’s suburbs grew by an astounding 44 percent, so that today only one in ten residents of the region lives in the central city. Nor was growth uniform across the city—most neighborhoods south of downtown actually lost residents over the decade. Even international immigrants to the region are moving straight to the suburbs. The result has been a rapid decentralization of jobs across the region. Suburb-to-suburb commutes predominate in greater Atlanta, and the economic primacy of the core is dissipating.
Despite these patterns, overall economic indicators in Atlanta moved in a positive direction in the 1990s. Median incomes rose, poverty dropped, and the number of middle-class households remained stable. And yet, these aggregate trends mask disturbing differences by race. Blacks, whites, and Hispanics in the city live in largely segregated neighborhoods. Annual household incomes for blacks trail those for whites by a stunning $38,000. Families with children, most of whom are African American, face particular challenges—close to one-half live below or near the poverty line. These income and resource gaps are mirrored in homeownership trends by race over the decade: White homeownership increased, black homeownership was stagnant, and Hispanic homeownership declined.
Along these lines and others, then, Atlanta in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 concludes that:
- Atlanta’s population “rebounded” during the 1990s, but the region still decentralized dramatically. After losing 7 percent of its population in the 1980s, Atlanta grew by 6 percent, or 22,000 residents, in the 1990s. The city’s downtown and northwestern neighborhoods experienced strong population growth. At the same time, though, Atlanta’s suburbs added 2.1 million people—roughly 100 residents for every net new resident in the city. As a result, economic activity in the region is shifting outward. Fully three-fourths of the region’s workers commute from homes in the suburbs to jobs in the suburbs, and nearly two-thirds of city residents drive alone to work. Despite a rise in downtown living, the core of the Atlanta region is losing ground as an employment destination.
- The city’s racial and ethnic profile is changing. Like many other cities in the South, Atlanta has a predominantly African American population. Yet the city actually lost black residents in the 1990s, while it gained modest numbers of Hispanic, white, and Asian residents. Atlanta’s increasing diversity owes in part to a relatively small but fast-growing immigrant population. New arrivals from a varied set of world regions served to more than double the size of the city’s foreign-born population over the decade, to 27,000 in 2000. As with population generally in the Atlanta metro area, however, immigrants are choosing the suburbs over the city by wide margins. For every new foreign-born resident the city of Atlanta added in the 1990s, its suburbs added 21.
- Atlanta has a significant number of young professionals, but few married-couple families. A large share of Atlanta’s population is in its twenties and early thirties. Some members of this age group are recent immigrants to the U.S., evidenced by the fact that men outnumber women. Many, however, are young professionals who live alone or with friends—more than 50 percent of the city’s households are “nonfamilies.” The city’s appeal for such young singles is confirmed by the large share (30 percent) of Atlanta residents who arrived within the last five years. Also underscoring the importance of the unattached is the fact that just 25 percent of Atlanta households contain a married couple, compared with 36 percent in the average Living City. In addition, trends in the 1990s suggest that young families continue to leave Atlanta: The number of married-couple families grew in the suburbs by 180,000, but declined in the central city.
- Stark differences in education, work, and income divide the city’s race groups. Atlanta’s overall trends in human capital and income were quite positive in the 1990s. Median household income rose significantly, poverty dropped, and the number of middle-class households was relatively stable. The city owes this economic success in part to its proportion of college graduates, which is the fifth-highest among the 23 Living Cities. Behind these promising aggregate trends, however, lie dramatic differences by race. In particular, the typical household income for blacks lags that for whites by $38,000; the Hispanic-white gap is $25,000. Nearly one in four Atlanta children, most of whom are African American, have no working parents. While more than two-thirds of white adults in Atlanta have a bachelor’s degree, only 13 percent of blacks do. The result is that a third of the city’s blacks live below the poverty line, as do 40 percent of its children—highest among the Living Cities.
- Whites made homeownership gains in Atlanta during the 1990s, but other groups did not. Atlanta’s overall homeownership rate increased marginally in the 1990s, and ranks low (83rd) among the 100 largest cities. In part, this reflects the city’s housing stock, which contains more multifamily units than other cities. Yet it also reflects the lack of progress that the city’s minority groups made on homeownership during the decade. More white households (55 percent) owned their homes in 2000 than in 1990. The homeownership rate for blacks (38 percent), however, stagnated, and the rate for Hispanics actually dropped. Meanwhile, rents rose in the city in the 1990s, increasing the need for affordable housing, and making it harder for moderate-income renters to save for homeownership opportunities.
By presenting the indicators on the following pages, Atlanta in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 seeks to give readers a better sense of where Atlanta and its residents stand in relation to their peers, and how the 1990s shaped the city, its neighborhoods, and the entire Atlanta region. Living Cities and the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy hope that this information will prompt a fruitful dialogue among city and community leaders about the direction Atlanta should take in the coming decade.