As a long time Atlanta resident, I like my town. It’s a good town to live in, and it gets a tremendous amount of shit from the nationwide media that’s almost entirely unwarranted. In fact, I think a good objective case can be made that Atlanta far outranks most major metropolitan areas in the country when it comes to lifestyle issues that actually matter.
State economic rankings usually default to GDP, or GDP per capita, when you do nationwide comparisons, but these are woefully lacking in describing what matters to individuals economically, which is how much they’re getting paid versus how much it costs to live. This sort of analysis should be obvious, but it seems to never get play in the media. For instance, if you look at international boundary cases, Venezuela’s GDP per capita is double that of Peru, but Venezuela’s government is so screwed up that people are eating dogs and pigeons to keep from starving. Sign me up for Peru. Let’s take that model and compare metro areas in the US.
I sourced median income per city from here, and the overall cost of living calculus from here. I haven’t vetted their sources, but they seem reasonable to me. Let’s walk through a simple analysis, trusting the sources and ignoring pesky confounders, of which I’m sure there are plenty.
First, let’s narrow our analysis specifically to speak about Median People, vaguely defined as “people who earn the median salary.” Let’s further presume that if Median People can earn a median income in one city, they can move and acquire a job that pays the median income in the other city. This may not be a great assumption, but it’s a fair one for many “median jobs,” which are available in any metro area. From this, we presume that their salary, should they move to Atlanta, will go up or down to match the Atlanta median once they move. Then let’s presume after someone moves to Atlanta, they buy the same size house, or rent the same size apartment, buy the same food, go to the same restaurants, and such, that they currently do. They seek their current lifestyle in their town, they just seek it out in Atlanta, and then they put whatever the cost savings are is in the bank.
The analysis shows pretty clearly that just about every Median Person can bank a noticeable amount of money by moving to Atlanta and maintaining the same standard of living. There were two exceptions — Phoenix and San Francisco. Phoenix doesn’t surprise me, because it’s a very affordable place to live. San Francisco does, and I suspect that has to do with a gaggle of confounders. San Francisco has the lowest percentage of households with children of any metro area in the country, it’s experiencing extreme flight of low income individuals which tends to drive their medians up, and the gap is probably tied in one way or another to what they used to call in Britain “The Pink Pound.”
Suffice to say, if you’re making $110k in San Francisco doing a job that would be considered a “median job” anywhere else in the country, you should probably stay put. That’s a pretty sweet deal. For everyone else, purchasing power matters, and must figure in. And once you look at it through that lens, it’s no wonder Atlanta is a city built almost entirely out of transplants.
US News and World Report ranks Georgia’s public schools #35 in the country, but they’re basically cheating to push a narrative, in several ways. When they cooked up their ranking system, they included “spending per student” as a positive driver in their function, which is a terrible methodological decision because it basically gives states credit purely for spending more. When nitwits like Paul Krugman use that as justification for saying states should spend more, that’s blatantly circular logic. Another way the USNWR’s ranking is intentionally skewed, is it’s not looking at socioeconomics at all. School systems in more robust socioeconomic areas which are more racially homogeneous score higher on the quantitative factors, which means there’s a hidden bias in their ranking for “being rich and mostly white.”
Stan Leibowitz and Matthew Kelly did an analysis to strip the garbage out and reissue a mathematically honest ranking system, and these are the results:
Georgia public schools rank #7 in the nation in outcomes, and #5 in the nation on how good an outcome we get per dollar spent, instead of #35.
Another interesting result of that study, which is less related to Atlanta and more related to the overall educational conversation in the country, is this curious fact. There is no relationship between money spent and educational outcome, once you correct for socioeconomic factors.
But these sorts of things don’t play in the national media because it’s fun to make fun of Southerners. Regional prejudice is fair game because regional biases aren’t a protected class, so we get stuff like this.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I thought the skit was funny despite my pregnant wife being stranded eight miles from home for the entire night during that storm. We have pretty thick skin down here, but if they directed it at any other region of the country they would have caught hell. The comedians were curiously quiet when it happened to New York last week.
Geographic Racial Integration
When the now famous Philadelphia Starbucks Thing happened, in which a couple of black dudes waiting for a business meeting in a Starbucks got arrested for basically nothing, I was appalled and surprised. The whole thing was very clearly racist by either the progressive or the traditional definition. What caught me the most off guard is I simply couldn’t imagine that sort of thing happening in Atlanta. I live in a predominantly white suburb, but even my neighborhood is probably between 5% and 10% black. My kid’s expensive private daycare is 10% black in attendees, and probably 20% black in staff. I have never been in a Starbucks where there weren’t black customers. Chances are at least 50/50 that the baristas are black, and are probably around 50/50 that the managers are black. Two thirds of our police are black. I have black clients. I’ve worked for (and against) very talented black attorneys. I meet black professionals in Starbucks.
It would be irresponsible to say that there’s no racism in Atlanta. There is. There’s racism everywhere. And certain elements of the legacy south have racism baked in, because those indoctrinations are hard to shake once they’ve taken hold. But Atlanta, in my view, has adopted (possibly inadvertently) the best long-term strategy to mitigating it, which is to mix everybody up and expose them all to each other. And you can see it on the maps.
You can do interesting and beautiful things with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) nowadays, and one of my favorites is the Racial Dot Map. One dot per person in the US, colored by race. Follow that link, it’s great. Most metro areas in the country, including Atlanta, have regions that predominate. What strikes me as significant, when looking at large US metro areas, is how stark the boundaries are in some cities as compared to others.
Here’s Chicago. You can literally see the train tracks.
Here’s Detroit. That line with all the blue dots (white people) to the north and green dots (black people) to the south is the Detroit City Limits, also known as 8 Mile Road, of Eminem fame. “Everybody in the 313” is right down that line.
Here’s New York. Very crisp geographic demarcation of racial boundaries.
Now here’s Atlanta.
That tight red blob there is Georgia Tech, because, well, Georgia Tech. The Latino population is pretty dense along Buford Highway, and there are regions which are dominated by race, but outside a few locations the boundaries aren’t crisp at all. There’s a lot of mixing of neighbors. And if you go to the site and dial in, you’ll find there aren’t very many blue dot areas (white) that don’t have speckles of other dots mixed in. I don’t want to dox myself, really, but even though I live in a predominantly white suburb smack in the middle of Newt Gingrich territory, here’s what the map looks like when you zoom in.
In many places in Atlanta, MLK’s dream of “little black boys and little black girls joining hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers” is basically the truth on the ground, and we like it that way.
How did Atlanta achieve this sort of imperfect-but-way-better-than-Detroit geographic integration? I think it’s twofold. One, Atlanta has a strong community of educated black professionals, which promotes socioeconomic integration. Two, the god-awful traffic (and it is god awful) has created a sort of a natural boundary, which incentivizes well off professionals to move back into town and redevelop it. Gentrification, basically. While I can see the downsides of gentrification, and see why people fight it, there’s a very good systems-analysis case to be made that gentrification is integration.
What’s Bad about Atlanta?
It’s really, really hot, owing partly to local climates, partly to that whole “globe warming” thing, and partly to the urban heat dome phenomena. Pro tip, however: don’t call it Hotlanta. Nobody does that here. That’s tourist talk. You can even see the heat islands on the weather map. Look at the lens between icy and rainy weather in this snapshot, how it forms a circle:
The traffic is horrible, and the public transit is limited in availability, owing to Atlanta’s lack of defined geographic boundaries that would otherwise have forced it to build “up” instead of “out.” (also a bit of history, which may have been a little bit racist) Some interesting efforts have been made to convert portions of Atlanta to a bikeable/walkable city, with something called The Beltline, so if that’s your thing, you can do the thing.
The pollen is nightmarish in the spring. It looks like snow, with counts routinely up over 3000.
But on the whole, I’ll take it.