The Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative (AWBI) released its Beloved Economy report earlier this year. The report confirms Atlanta is one of the nation’s top cities for income inequality and economic injustice — a title it has held for years — and offers solutions to close the gap.

According to the report, more than a third of households in Atlanta have zero or negative net worth, and White Atlanta households have 46 times more wealth than Black households on average.

For a city known as the “Black Mecca,” one where supposedly African Americans are able to make economic strides like nowhere else in the country, it doesn’t seem like the city is living up to that title.

In 2017, AWBI released a report which used data from 2015 that contained an analysis of housing, business and economic outcomes of Black people in the city and “identified key strategies for supporting 1,000 Black-owned businesses in 1,000 days to hire one additional employee or pay a living wage.” Since then, AWBI has been working to implement these strategies and identify metrics on a city level around the racial wealth gap.

The Beloved Economy report came at the right time — 10 years since AWBI’s initial founding in 2013 — to reevaluate some of that work and see how progress has been made.

“We felt an absence of truth regarding the economic status, and particularly the wealth status of Black residents, in the city of Atlanta,” said Alex Camardelle, Ph.D., vice president of policy and research at AWBI and lead author of the report. 

It also allowed for the development of a new framework to gauge true success and progress beyond economics.

“We have argued at AWBI that income is an inefficient way to understand the successes and progress of Black folk, given that wealth and income are not synonymous,” Camardelle said. “We wanted to build out a report grounded in data — not just numbers and metrics, but also voices from Black residents to introduce a new framework that centers wealth over income — specifically to measure how Black folks are faring in this economy.”

Perhaps equally important as understanding wealth and income are not synonymous is understanding how AWBI defines the concept of wealth. The report features multiple definitions of the word throughout the report, defined in different ways from the residents featured in it. One of the most prevalent ones was most synonymous with the word freedom.

“Freedom to engage in markets without constraints, freedom to see a doctor when you are sick, participate in democracy without being fired… wealth enables all of these freedoms that are described,” Camardelle said.

Kim Addie, vice president of strategy and impact at AWBI, said the interconnectedness of everything that was described as wealth in the report cannot be overlooked.

“You have to be able to look at climate and healthcare… and make those connections because it misses the big picture if you don’t,” Addie said.

Though the definition of wealth was explored, one constant that remained is that wealth is a key component to understand how certain groups were doing in comparison to others. Janelle Williams, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, said it was important to create a report focused on wealth, not just the absence of it.

“We have a lot of reports that talk about poverty, and that work and research is really sound — it’s important, we want to honor it, we want to acknowledge it,” Williams said. “But for us, it’s also important to understand why we need to focus on wealth if we are really trying to move the needle and see more equitable outcomes.”

One of the reasons this focus on wealth is so important is the old saying, “wealth begets wealth.” In other words, it’s easy to become or stay wealthy when you come from wealth, and wealthy White families have been able to pass down wealth for generations in ways that many other non-White Americans have not been able to.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, in the U.S., “Black families owned about 24 cents for every $1 of white family wealth, on average,” and “Hispanic families owned about 19 cents for every $1 of white family wealth, on average.” As of the third quarter of 2023, Black and Hispanic families had about $958,000 and $1,011,000 less wealth on average than white families, respectively. 

Given the country’s violent history of oppression for generations of citizens of non-White backgrounds, it may not come as a surprise that wealth, which is often passed on from generation to generation, has remained largely a function of White Americans, whereas groups like Black and Hispanic Americans have largely been excluded from both achieving it and passing it down for generations.

Much of this historic wealth, Williams added, was built on the backs of Black and Brown people through the institution of slavery, as well as lack of opportunity beyond menial work. Yet the descendants of these same people who helped build wealth for White Americans are not seeing any wealth passed down to them. For these reasons, the AWBI seeks “bold and daring” solutions — not small incremental ones — to build wealth for groups of Americans that need it. 

The Beloved Economy report outlines some of those solutions. It lists a number of recommendations for building the Black economy in Atlanta. They are: 

  • Support local efforts to launch a baby bonds program
  • Establish a publicly-funded guaranteed income program
  • Establish community accountability for strict enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA)
  • Provide free access to checking accounts at trusted banks
  • Establish a city-led initiative to address predatory lending
  • Eliminate the use of wealth-based punishment through fines, fees, and cash bail
  • Increase transparency in procurement outcomes for Black-owned businesses in the City
  • Strengthen affordable commercial space opportunities in the City
  • Invest in employee ownership
  • Launch an Atlanta delegation and campaign committed to repealing state preemption
  • Use public dollars to hold companies accountable for the creation of asset-building jobs
  • Prioritize inclusionary zoning regulations with a racial equity lens
  • Invest in community land trusts
  • Commit to more deeply affordable housing goals
  • Expand housing affordability strategies to include a complementary approach to promote economic mobility
  • Commit to opportunities for Black-owned businesses in infrastructure spending
  • Codify a commitment to reparations
  • Establish the Office of Community Wealth Building

Williams added that while these are targeted approaches to build Black wealth, they are “race explicit, but not race exclusive.” She emphasized that building Black wealth ultimately builds wealth for other marginalized groups, too, and that empowering historically disadvantaged groups does not automatically mean they will be economically harming White Americans.

“We don’t need to adopt practices that would also create harm,” Williams said.

Challenges of getting people on board

Though it may be easy to see the racial wealth divide for some, convincing others remains a hurdle to implementing the recommendations outlined.

Until recently, Camardelle said, it was challenging to map racial wealth divides on certain scales like cities, and it often resulted in estimates based on larger data sets like counties and states. Now, with more data, these inequities can be mapped on specific levels like the city of Atlanta — another reason for the Beloved Economy report.

“What we have encountered so far is that Atlanta’s reputation is not such a significant racial wealth divide … it’s recognized as being what was once-noted as the seat of Black middle-class achievement in the nation,” Camardelle said. “I think what we’ve allowed ourselves to do in many ways is convince ourselves that that’s still the case, and our job at AWBI is to say, ‘actually, this is what the data tells us,’ and think about policies that address that reality.”

Still, Camardelle said he recognizes that many of the recommendations in the report are bold, not to mention the polarized political environment in Georgia and the rest of the country that makes their bold recommendations that much harder to do without pushback, which emphasizes the need for data to back up the recommendations.

While Atlanta is known for having Black civil rights leaders, it also has a large number of Black leadership within the city, especially in positions like mayor which has been held by a Black person since Maynard Jackson in the early 70s. So with all this history of Black political leaders, it begs the question: has Atlanta’s Black leadership, at least in part, failed the city?

“This year is the 50th anniversary of [Atlanta’s] first Black mayor, so we use that as a bit of a baseline when we think about progress made and progress lost,” Camardelle said. “Across many different measures, [especially] regarding income, we’ve not made a lot of economic progress, particularly for Black folks.”

Camardelle added that the handful of Black millionaires and billionaires in Atlanta are often cited for keeping the “Black Mecca” idea alive, but it’s not indicative of how Black people in the city generally do. However, it may not be fair to completely put this blame solely on Black leadership.

“It’s not lost on us that Atlanta’s political and elected leadership is often constrained by a very powerful corporate infrastructure in the city and the state government,” Camardelle said. “We should not criticize city leadership without acknowledging that they operate within a very constrained political environment — and that is by design,” 

Some of the recommendations in the report address these challenges with hopes that the city would be able to operate more effectively if the recommendations are adopted. 

Six months post-report, what’s the outlook?

Williams said that ultimately this report’s underlying theme is justice — and that justice for Black Atlantans will truly make the city “too busy to hate.” She added a quote from Bell Hooks: “You can’t have love without justice.”

“There must be an acknowledgment that the economic power in this city and this region has created conditions to consistently reproduce income inequality, economic immobility that is deeply racialized,” Williams said. “If the economic power is that powerful, what is the responsibility and accountability of leadership civically, politically, and otherwise to demand justice?”

The 2017 report from AWBI has been able to serve as something of a reference point for how things have been progressing in the last few years. 

“Across comparable measures, not much has changed with a couple of exceptions where things have declined,” Camardelle said. “One important point to make is that the wealth estimates we now discuss at the local level did not exist in 2017.”

He shared three measures in particular:

  • The share of the City of ATL’s population that is Black declined from 52 percent to 48 percent.
  • In 2015, the percent of Black households in the City of Atlanta with zero net worth was 35 percent. In 2021, the number ticked up to 36 percent.
  • Black household incomes did rise from $28,105 in 2015 to $38,854 in 2021; however, the gap between Black and white incomes widened during that time period, from $55,617 to $75,350.

That said, Camardelle pointed out that despite these metrics there has been growth, such as Black-owned businesses in the Atlanta Metro area — but that it’s difficult to tell that same metric specifically within the City of Atlanta because that city level data does not yet exist.

Though it has been six months since this report was released, the changes proposed in the report will take much longer to be realized.

“​​We’re doing some powerful narrative shifting work in Atlanta as a result of this work and starting to lay the ground for policies that will reduce the racial wealth gap,” Camardelle said. “For example, stakeholders, researchers, activists, etc., now have a number to point to when they want to highlight the racial wealth gap in Atlanta. Prior to the report, there was no such resource.”

He added that he hopes political leadership will reference these statistics and craft policies that address Atlanta’s racial wealth divide. In fact, there have already been steps towards introducing policy reflective of the report.

“In partnership with The GRO Fund and in alignment with the report’s first policy recommendation, the Georgia General Assembly introduced two baby bonds study committee bills to address racial wealth disparities across the state of Georgia,” Camardelle said. “We look forward to reintroducing those proposals in next year’s legislative session. The political will of leaders in our state houses, and maybe eventually in our local government, is what keeps me hopeful.”

And while there are allies working to close the wealth gap, said Camardelle, there are also people actively working against it. This presents one of the biggest challenges towards implementing this kind of work, but one that can hopefully be overcome with more time and education — as closing the wealth gap will help everyone in the long run, not just Black people.

“The biggest challenges include the unknowns of the federal policy environment with a looming election, and the persistent attacks on efforts to address racial wealth disparities from those on the far right,” Camardelle said. “The reality is that closing the racial wealth divide builds wealth for everyone. It doesn’t make sense to block efforts that would have such a meaningful impact for everyone in the U.S.”

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