A nighttime photograph of Atlanta, showing the divided I-85 highway. To illustrate Racial Wealth Gap.
Image credit: Adrian Schwarz on Unsplash

Atlanta is well known as a leading site of the Black middle class and has long been a cultural hub of the Black South. But despite political and cultural gains that have led to the city’s “Wakanda” reputation, Atlanta is also home to a very stark racial wealth divide, according to a new report authored by Alex Camardelle and Jarryd Bethea on behalf of the nonprofit Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative. 

Citing an Urban Institute dataset, Camardelle and Bethea point out that while the median wealth of a White household in Atlanta is $238,355, the median wealth of a Black household is $5,180. In other words, the median White family in Atlanta has 46 times the wealth of the median Black family. This is far more extreme than the national average, where median White household wealth is 12.5 times as great as Black wealth ($194,000 versus $15,500). According to census data, Atlanta leads the nation in income inequality.

Why is this? In their report, titled Building a Beloved Economy: A Baseline and Framework for Building Black Wealth in Atlanta, Camardelle and Bethea outline the drivers of wealth inequality—and why leaders in the city that’s “too busy to hate” have failed to adequately address class and racial inequality. 

In particular, the authors contend that “race-neutral policies have reproduced rather than mitigated inequities in Atlanta and across the South.” That is to say, deference to the Atlanta corporate elite—Atlanta is home, the authors note, to 30 Fortune 1000 companies—in the absence of specific policies to reduce the racial wealth divide has perpetuated inequality. Changing this trajectory, the authors add, requires an approach that is “race-explicit and holistic,” centered in “Black community wealth.”

The median White family in Atlanta has 46 times the wealth of the median Black family. This is far more extreme than the national average.

Mapping Racial and Economic Inequality in Atlanta

In their report, Camardelle and Bethea speak to how a large percentage of Atlanta’s Black population faces severe economic disadvantages. Among the data cited are the following:

  1. Percentage of families with zero or negative net worth: In Atlanta, 36 percent of Black households have zero or negative net worth compared to 13 percent of White households.
  2. Ability to cover three months’ worth of bills: This is what is known as an “asset poverty” measure. In Atlanta, 50 percent of Black households are “asset poor,” meaning that they are unable to cover their bills with current assets for three months if there is an interruption in income, compared to 16 percent of White households.
  3. Income poverty: In Atlanta, 28 percent of Black households live below the federal poverty line; only seven percent of White households do.
  4. Intergenerational poverty: In Atlanta, 20 percent of Black households suffer from intergenerational poverty (that is, affecting three or more generations); only one percent of White households suffer from intergenerational poverty.
  5. Median household income: In Atlanta, the median Black household has an income of $38,854. The median White household has an income of $114,195, nearly three times as much.
  6. Past-due debt (60 days or more): In Atlanta, 45 percent of Black residents are in delinquency compared to 21 percent of White residents.
  7. In Atlanta, 50 percent of Black households are “asset poor,” meaning that they are unable to cover their bills with current assets for three months.Student loan debt: Roughly one in seven borrowers in majority-Black Atlanta neighborhoods owes more than $100,000 in student debt, a rate that is 50 percent greater than borrowers in majority-White neighborhoods.
  8. Savings: In Atlanta, 37 percent of Black households have savings greater than $2,000, while 89 percent of White households have savings of at least that amount.
  9. Banking: In Atlanta, 15 percent of Black households lack a banking account (and thus are far more likely to get ensnared in predatory loans) compared to the citywide average of seven percent.
  10. Housing wealth: In Atlanta, Black households make up 48 percent of the city’s total households but own just 17 percent of the housing wealth. This outcome is a result of both lower homeownership rates and the undervaluing of Black-owned homes due to racial bias in appraising home values. 

All told, the data make clear just how severe race and economic inequality is in Atlanta. The authors also point out how factors that are often not considered when looking at wealth inequality, such as mass incarceration, often serve to widen the racial wealth gap even further. 

Additionally, while the authors don’t fully spell this out, one reason for Atlanta’s extreme level of inequality has to do with the dynamics of gentrification. Gentrification in Atlanta has been rapid. The numbers tell the tale: a city that was two-thirds African American as recently as 1990 is, according to the 2020 census, now only 48 percent Black.

Altering longstanding patterns of inequality requires…building community-based economic institutions that can sustain wealth over time.

The dynamics of gentrification have also exacerbated wealth inequality. That is because the standard pattern has been for wealthier White residents to push many working-class Black residents to the suburbs. So even as the White population that is moving into neighborhoods in northern sections of Atlanta such as Buckhead and Midtown skew high-income, the Black population that remains in many of the city’s non-gentrified neighborhoods (many of which are south of Interstate 20) is even poorer than it was before gentrification. 

The bottom line: no matter how one slices the numbers, the data are damning. If half of Atlanta’s Black population is asset-poor in a city that has a Black population of nearly 250,000, this means that well over 100,000 Black Atlanta residents are surviving, not thriving—even in a city that’s often considered the leading cultural center of the Black South. 

Mapping a Policy Path to Building Black Wealth

How might these numbers change? In their report, Camardelle and Bethea offer a detailed policy agenda. One key take-home message: altering longstanding patterns of inequality requires adopting a multifaceted holistic approach that boosts not just individual but also community wealth. This means building community-based economic institutions that can sustain wealth over time.

The authors note that while many Black residents in Atlanta have created businesses—a common approach to building wealth—ecosystem gaps have often led to businesses shutting down. As the authors put it, “Within the stories of joy and entrepreneurial success were pervasive obstacles that caused the lifespan of the business to be cut short. Increasing rent, the deterioration of the surrounding community by developers, low-value business investments from outside investors, and lack of capital were the top contributors to the closure of Black businesses.” 

The result of such setbacks, Camardelle and Bethea observe, is a failure to create intergenerational wealth. The policies advocated in their report can be summarized as follows:

  • Support income and wealth floors. The report advocates for guaranteed income to provide an income floor and “baby bond” accounts—that is, child trust accounts, funded at birth, that accumulate interest over time and can help build wealth by generating starter funds for college or business investment when the account holder becomes an adult.
  • Ease banking access. Ideas expressed here include policies to limit predatory lending, provide community oversight of bank lending, and encourage banks to lower the fees charged to low-income customers.
  • Leverage city authority. Among the report’s recommendations are to use procurement to support Black-owned businesses, evaluate public subsidies using a racial equity lens, convert city-owned land into affordable rental space for Black-owned businesses, and help Black-owned businesses access federal dollars that are disbursed in Atlanta.
  • Advance reparations. Current city policy impedes Black wealth building. For instance, in 2022 the city of Atlanta spent $292.3 million on carceral activities, which amounted to 14 percent of the city’s budget or about $589 per resident. This spending has pushed far too many Black residents and families into the incarceration system, thereby diminishing intergenerational wealth. The report calls for reducing carceral expenditures; abolishing financial punitive practices such as court fines, fees, and cash bail; and establishing a city commission on reparations similar in structure to what Evanston, IL, has done (which offers $25,000 payments to Black residents who were harmed by mortgage redlining).

What’s Next? Movement Connections Needed

Camardelle and Bethea conclude by calling for “a bold commitment to addressing Black wealth.” However, as is often the case with reports offering analyses of wealth in this country, the policy suggestions in Building a Beloved Economy are disconnected from the movement energy that would be needed to effect change. 

A few years ago, in an NPQ article titled “Stay Mad,” which was published shortly after the 2020 national elections, philanthropic advisor Will Cordery and Project South Movement Organizing Senior Strategist Stephanie Guilloud wrote, “To prevail in the next decade in this long-haul journey for liberation, we need to understand people’s movement in the South and in relationship to the world.” It was an important point then—and it remains as critical today if the trajectory of racial and economic inequality in Atlanta is to be seriously interrupted, and a more equitable Atlanta built in its place.