Getting to Work Is Becoming a Major Challenge for the Poor Who Are Forced to the Suburbs in the Deep South

En route to apply to jobs in downtown Atlanta, Lauren Scott checks a message on her phone regarding a job that she'd applied for. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
En route to apply to jobs in downtown Atlanta, Lauren Scott checks a message on her phone regarding a job that she’d applied for. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

She set off on the latest day of job-hunting wearing tiny star-shaped earrings that belonged to her 18-month-old daughter and frayed $6 shoes from Walmart that were the more comfortable of her two pairs. In her backpack she had stashed a ham-and-cheese sandwich for lunch, hand sanitizer for the bus and pocket change for printing résumés at the public library. She carried a spiral notebook with a handwritten list of job openings that she’d titled her “Plan of Action for the Week.” 

It had been 20 months since Lauren Scott lost her apartment and six months since she lost her car and 10 weeks since she washed up at a homeless shelter in this suburb south of Atlanta with no money and no job. Her daughter, Za’Niyah, had already lived in seven places, and Scott feared that her child would soon grow old enough to permanently remember the chaos. So shortly after sunrise, she packed Za’Niyah into a day-care bus that picked up the shelter’s children, walked to the closest bus station and used her phone to find directions to the first of the companies on her list, an industrial site that would have been 27 minutes away by car.

She squinted, with a light sigh, at the public-transit curlicue she was about to make through Atlanta:

Sixty-nine stops on a bus;

a nine-minute train ride;

an additional 49 stops on a bus;

a quarter-mile walk.

“Off to the races,” Scott, 28, said as she boarded the No. 55 bus, and this was a day much like the others, when the cost of destitution was a job hunt in which even the simplest task — placing an application — required four hours, round-trip, on a bus.

Scott just needed to get to her job interview, but she was finding around her the obstacles that have shaped this region’s increasingly pervasive and isolating form of extreme poverty. In the metropolitan areas of the Deep South, government policies and rising real estate prices have pushed the poor out of urban centers and farther from jobs. Low-income people have, in turn, grown more reliant on public-transit networks that are among the weakest in the country. When they search for work, they step into a region where pay tends to be low and unemployment tends to be high. The share of residents in deep poverty — with incomes below $10,045 for a parent and two children — in these Deep South metro areas has grown by 24 percent over the past decade, according to Census Bureau data.

But even as their ranks have grown, the deeply impoverished in the Deep South have also increasingly found that they are on their own: They are less likely to receive the help of a spouse — or the government. Five of the six states with the highest proportion of single parents are in the Deep South. Meanwhile, policymakers have dismantled the cash assistance programs that used to provide critical support for the jobless with children. Those like Scott not only have less access to jobs, they also have less of a safety net when they are unemployed.

Scott was starting her latest week with a notebook full of bullet-by-bullet leads and a series of bus rides to follow up on them. Apply to Randstad Staffing, she had written in neat cursive; it was hiring for warehouse positions. Apply to Walmart, she had written just below. Millwood Inc., she had written along with the company’s address — her first stop of the week. Days earlier, she spotted Millwood’s ad on a Facebook page for unemployed Georgians. The company wanted in-person applicants.

Aboard the bus, Scott zigzagged through Clayton County, an area that runs south from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and has transformed over 25 years from majority white to majority black, its poverty rate rising during that span from 9 percent to 24 percent. A generation of poor people resettled here after Atlanta shuttered inner-city housing projects, and now title-loan and pawn shops were the lone life in sleepy strip malls; traffic backed up for an hour to wait in line at a weekly food pantry; and at a plasma center where people could get up to $50 for blood donations, lines formed many mornings around the building before the 7:30 a.m. opening.

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Source: The Washington Post | Chico Harlan