Survey: Many Atlantans Struggling With Financial Insecurity

Surprise expenses, like an expensive car repair, can lead to a lot of financial instability.
Surprise expenses, like an expensive car repair, can lead to a lot of financial instability.
Credit Matt Rourke / Associated Press

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If you had a sudden expense of $400 could you pay for it right now? Nearly half of people in the Atlanta area say it would be a real challenge. That’s according to a new survey from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

According to the survey, half of us could pay in cash. Another quarter would put the charge on a credit card or borrow the money. The rest of us would either pawn something, or couldn’t pay at all.

During naptime at a downtown daycare center, a 33-year-old teacher, who asked that her name not be used, says she’s facing that kind of surprise expense.

“I’m having some car troubles, so I’ve been having to ride the train this week, and might have to ride it for the next two weeks,” she said.

It’s challenging enough to keep up with car payments, let alone the brake and rotor work she’s been told her car needs. And last year, she had emergency gall bladder surgery.

“So I’m still trying to catch up with that, and it’s hard for me to get a savings,” she said, “because I know I’m going to have to go into that savings to get what I need.”

“There’s a whole other reality that people are experiencing, where they seem afloat, but it is so tenuous, and I think the improvements from the recession aren’t being felt all the way,” said Ginneh Baugh, senior director of data and knowledge development for the United Way of Greater Atlanta, which partnered with ARC on the survey. “People are going from unemployed to employed, but they are not yet financially stable.”

Baugh said a huge number of people calling the United Way’s 211 financial help line have jobs. They just can’t save enough for normal emergencies like those the daycare teacher is facing: minor surgery or a car repair.

And car problems can mean big problems in a car-centric city like Atlanta. Nearly 30 percent of metro Atlantans surveyed agreed with the statement, “I frequently lack transportation to get to places I need to go.”

Baugh said that as a region, this financial tightrope should sound alarm bells.

“We’re growing; we have great signs of improvement, and yet, right behind the veil, all is not well.”

The daycare teacher is working toward a degree in early-childhood education, but sometimes it’s hard to keep her eyes on her goals. Just last night, she said, she and her mother were talking about what she would do if faced with another surprise expense in the near future. 

“And I really. I really can’t say. Because anything could happen, I understand that. But I wouldn’t know.”

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