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)

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.