Former Atlanta Mayor: ‘I Regret That I Didn’t Do More’

Shirley Franklin reflects on the difficulty of combating economic inequality when times are good and voters have other priorities.

Shirley Franklin served as mayor of Atlanta from 2002 to 2010 during a time of economic growth, and was the first woman to lead the Southern city. 
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
March 24, 2014, 8:29 a.m.

The Holy Grail in cur­rent polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic de­bates is find­ing the best way to help more Amer­ic­ans move up the so­cioeco­nom­ic lad­der. No one likes the idea of the Amer­ic­an Dream be­ing re­duced to in­di­vidu­als stuck in the status to which they were born. And every­one wants an an­swer to this grow­ing prob­lem of mo­bil­ity, in­ter­rup­ted — city and state law­makers, 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, even lead­ers of both polit­ic­al parties in Wash­ing­ton. 

Some of the most in­ter­est­ing per­spect­ives on mo­bil­ity come from people work­ing on a loc­al level, like Shir­ley Frank­lin, the former two-term may­or of At­lanta. A re­cent re­port from the Equal­ity of Op­por­tun­ity Pro­ject ranked the South­ern city as one of the least hos­pit­able places in the coun­try for low-in­come chil­dren to get ahead. Frank­lin teaches at the Uni­versity of Texas and acts as the CEO of Pur­pose Built Com­munit­ies, a non­profit con­sult­ing firm that works with loc­al com­munit­ies to over­haul neigh­bor­hoods through bet­ter hous­ing, so­cial ser­vices, and edu­ca­tion.

Frank­lin spoke to Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently about why At­lanta has fallen be­hind on so­cial mo­bil­ity and why she wishes she’d paid more at­ten­tion to the prob­lem when she held of­fice. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low:

Let’s get to it. Why do you think the city of At­lanta ranks so low for so­cial mo­bil­ity?

Well, I was curi­ous about that study. Clearly, it has been a chal­lenge in At­lanta for the last couple of years. In the city it­self, there has been pretty in­tract­able poverty that goes all the way back to the 1970s and 1980s. It ap­pears that whatever is good that’s go­ing on in At­lanta is not hav­ing a pos­it­ive im­pact on the people with the low­est in­comes. It is something that people have grappled with — me as may­or, and oth­er pub­lic of­fi­cials — and the fo­cus has largely been on jobs, minor­ity and fe­male busi­nesses, grow­ing small busi­ness, en­tre­pren­eur­ship, and im­prov­ing edu­ca­tion. But for the most part, those activ­it­ies have been in silos and not re­lated to each oth­er. Maybe we’ll find that con­nect­ing these ini­ti­at­ives is a bet­ter way of go­ing about this work than hav­ing ex­cel­lent or good pro­grams work­ing in­di­vidu­ally.

You com­bine that with the his­tory of the place. This is a part of the coun­try where Jim Crow was so vir­u­lent. It’s a place that was ag­ri­cul­tur­al. The state it­self is a right-to-work state, where wages are typ­ic­ally low. The in­vest­ment in edu­ca­tion has been low over the dec­ades. We tend to talk about these in­cre­ment­al im­prove­ments in Geor­gia. It takes more than a little bit to help people on the very bot­tom.

Whose re­spons­ib­il­ity is it to tackle big eco­nom­ic is­sues like mak­ing sure more people can still move up the so­cioeco­nom­ic lad­der — loc­al or fed­er­al gov­ern­ment?

The res­ults show that it’s every­body’s prob­lem. As a former loc­al of­fi­cial, it causes me to think about what else I could have done. I was known as the sew­er may­or and the in­fra­struc­ture may­or. I tackled is­sues like home­less­ness and the fin­an­cial gap that high school stu­dents have in go­ing to col­lege. I tackled some of those is­sues, but I really didn’t con­nect all of them. I really don’t think we can do this one sec­tor at a time, or one level of gov­ern­ment at a time. I think it has to be col­lab­or­at­ive.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can en­cour­age that, but loc­al lead­ers are very im­port­ant. I have to be­lieve that in oth­er com­munit­ies that have high­er mo­bil­ity, loc­al lead­ers played a role. Look at someone like May­or Castro in San Ant­o­nio. All of the lit­er­at­ure says that chil­dren need to have an early start, and his ad­vocacy for a sales tax for early edu­ca­tion in San Ant­o­nio (and passing a sales tax) worked. For someone who has as­pir­a­tions to the na­tion­al level, or cer­tainly the state level [of polit­ics], it can be pretty dan­ger­ous to ad­voc­ate for taxes, but in this case, he felt like that was im­port­ant and it made a dif­fer­ence.

So what do you wish you’d done dif­fer­ently as may­or to tackle these ques­tions?

I re­gret that I didn’t do more. What I could have done is been a stronger ad­voc­ate. The first and easi­est thing to do would have been to use the bully pul­pit to talk about the im­port­ance of reach­ing back and help­ing people at the low­est end. I know that I offered al­tern­at­ives in city gov­ern­ment. For in­stance, we in­creased the min­im­um wage that was be­ing paid to city em­ploy­ees. That seems like a small thing, but there were city em­ploy­ees who were earn­ing less than $20,000 a year work­ing 40 hours a week when I came in­to of­fice. As soon as there was money, we raised that, and we took sea­son­al em­ploy­ees and moved them in­to full-time po­s­i­tions. That was an ef­fort to raise the level of in­come for work­ing men and wo­men who were do­ing a good job, but who were vastly un­der­paid. We raised the floor, but I should have been talk­ing to every­one and mak­ing the wage rate in the state of Geor­gia and in the city of At­lanta, bey­ond City Hall, an is­sue.

The second idea is that I really didn’t do much around edu­ca­tion when I was in of­fice. I’m an ad­voc­ate for edu­ca­tion and some al­tern­at­ives like charter schools, but I could have done more. I could have brought more people to­geth­er to force the dis­cus­sion about how our chil­dren were con­tinu­ing to fall be­hind, and I didn’t do that. I did ini­ti­ate a pro­gram through the city to as­sist some 4,000 stu­dents with sum­mer jobs over six years. We raised $6 mil­lion to pay the dif­fer­ence between their costs and their schol­ar­ships. I thought that was pretty good, but the 4,000 needs to be 40,000.

What is At­lanta do­ing right now that’s work­ing?

I’m as­so­ci­ated with Pur­pose Built Com­munit­ies and East Lake. [East Lake is a neigh­bor­hood out­side of down­town At­lanta that’s been trans­formed by provid­ing wrap­around ser­vices for its low-in­come res­id­ents]. It is a mod­el that has been sup­por­ted by loc­al found­a­tions and in­di­vidu­als, and it con­tin­ues to prove that if you have a hol­ist­ic ap­proach, if you fo­cus on the edu­ca­tion pipeline, you can in­ten­tion­ally build com­munit­ies that can be sus­tained as middle in­come and ser­vice low in­come people. If there are ad­equate ser­vices, then people’s lives change.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is so grid­locked now. What does this mean for state and loc­al of­fi­cials?

It leaves us in the same place as al­ways: to do our jobs. Some­times you have help, and some­times you don’t. Some­times the fed­er­al of­fi­cials are lead­ing the way and the loc­al of­fi­cials are drag­ging their feet. Cer­tainly, the civil-rights move­ment is an ex­ample of that. The War on Poverty is an­oth­er ex­ample. Had there not been a heavy push from Pres­id­ent John­son on the de­seg­reg­a­tion of schools, we may nev­er have seen it. Some­times it comes from there. Some­times it comes from here. I don’t think we should get stuck on who does it. Who­ever is able to do it, ought to.

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