Poverty In Columbus Rises While National Rates Decline; Local Efforts Backfired
Ten years of data reveal the Columbus poverty rate increased while the state and nation largely improved, highlighting an egregious failure of local efforts and policy.
A view of homes at the intersection of 32nd Street and Sixth Avenue in the North Highlands neighborhood of Columbus, Ga. The median household income of the neighborhood is roughly $29,000, with half its residents (49%) living below the poverty line.
Image Credit:
Muscogee Muckraker

UPDATE: The Columbus poverty rate has increased to an estimated 22% for 2022; a 10% increase from the original publishing of this article.

Columbusites are living in a far more impoverished state compared to other Georgians and the nation as a whole. Ten years worth of data reveal the poverty rate in Columbus, Ga. has increased while the state and national rates have largely improved.

The Fountain City had a poverty rate of 20.6% in 2010, far lower than that of Atlanta’s rate of 26.1% that same year. However, Atlanta decreased its poverty rate all the way down to 19.20% by 2020. The state of Georgia also decreased its poverty rate from 17.9% to 14.3% over the same time frame, while the U.S. rate as a whole dropped from 15.3% down to 12.8%. 

Columbus, Ga., however, remains trending in the opposite direction — in spite of the countless local efforts, organizations, and initiatives aimed at moving the needle the other way.

Over the same ten-year timeframe from 2010 to 2020, the poverty rate in Columbus, Ga., has remained at roughly 20%. In fact, measuring according to trendline from its lowest poverty rate in 2012 to its most current reported rate in 2020 —an eight year period — shows an increase in the poverty rate among Columbusites.

In 2012, the Fountain City had a poverty rate of 17.9%. That number rose heavily, peaking at a whopping 23.7% in 2017, and then settling within-trend at 20.0% in 2020. 

The overall rise from 2012 to 2020 reveals that Columbus, Ga. has experienced a 10.5% increase in poverty. This means that for every ten Columbusites who lived in poverty in 2012, another was added by 2020.

So how does Columbus’s eight-year rise in poverty compare to poverty rates in Atlanta, the state of Georgia, and the U.S. as whole over the same timeframe? The data clearly shows Columbus has grown far poorer than its surrounding environment, despite a decade worth of local efforts intended to build prosperity.

During the same eight-year period from 2012 to 2020, the city of Atlanta decreased their poverty rate from 25.8% all the way down to 19.2% — that’s a 25.6% reduction in poverty throughout the city. Columbus, on the other hand, increased poverty by 10.5%, moving in the complete opposite direction than its Atlantan neighbors.

Georgia as a whole also decreased its poverty rate dramatically over the same eight-year period, bringing its 2012 poverty rate of 19.2% down to 14.3% in 2020 — a reduction in poverty state-wide by the same 25.5% as Atlanta. Columbus, mind you, managed to increase its poverty rate by 10.5% during the same time period.

The United States also continued to decrease its poverty rate over the same eight-year period. From our 2012 poverty rate of 15.9%, the U.S. as a whole decreased poverty to just 12.8% in 2020 — an astonishing 19.4% reduction in poverty for the nation as a whole. Columbus, Ga. moved in the opposite direction, increasing poverty by 10.5% within the city over the same eight years.

It is also noteworthy that deaths from drug overdose have doubled from 2020 to 2021 in Muscogee County; a statistically relevant correlation that tends to reveal itself as poverty rises within a given area. 

This all begs the question of, “How could this be happening, especially with all the programs and initiatives geared toward reducing poverty here in Columbus?”

Regardless of any speculation over the causes of poverty, the data is very clear: Poverty has risen sharply in Columbus while decreasing throughout the state and the nation as a whole. It is plainly apparent that whatever actions have been taken to combat poverty in Columbus have most egregiously failed. 

The timeframe of when the Columbus poverty rate began to rise and deviate from that of the state and nation coincides with the administration of the city’s previous mayor, Teresa Tomlinson. While famed by many altruistic Columbusites for the short-term “feel good” effects of starting economic development initiatives, the unsustainable long-term side effects were also forewarned of at the time; many simply chose to ignore them in exchange for the short-term “feel good” effects.

The actions taken by these economic development efforts have quite obviously backfired. We are now witnessing those long-term effects that went ignored for years as they took root.

The “Columbus 2025” initiative is a case-study example. Designed and implemented by a private/public collaboration of Columbus elite in 2014 — many of whom Tomlinson held long-standing personal relationships with — Columbus  2025 continues to wield huge political influence applied through the locally-acclaimed social status and checkbooks of a few wealthy and influential Columbusites. 

For eight years, the initiative has specifically aimed to reduce poverty as one of its core objectives. However, while Columbus 2025 may well have good intentions and genuinely seek to create a more competitive and prosperous region, their level of competence in actually doing so has measurably fallen short. 

The group was also responsible for the development of the city’s new logo, the backstory of which was covered in an opinion piece published by The Muckraker. While intended to attract people to Columbus in an effort to grow the area economically, the logo quickly made satirical headlines across the nation and continues to repel people away from the city. The logo was ironically received by the public as an example of the city’s incompetence — the exact opposite of what Columbus 2025 was tasked with achieving. 

Another cultural anomaly readily observable within the influential circles of Columbus is a megalomania-like tendency to run off talented employees, ironically shrinking the pool of talented and educated people residing within Columbus who could have otherwise helped solve the problems faced by the city. 

This same sort of irony can be seen through the measurable effects of programs like Columbus 2025 across the board. Their political influence and power — largely bought through social and monetary capital in lieu of competence and merit— have categorically resulted in increased poverty, rampant drug use, and death.

The measurable rise in poverty within Columbus is, statistically speaking, likely to be yet another unfortunate result of lending local political power to the altruistic and socially-wealthy instead of to the analytically competent who are capable of solving these problems long-term. 

Competence matters, and the long-term measurable results reveal a lack of it. Perhaps it’s time the influential elite of Columbus tried something else.

Columbus residents can voice their opinions about the increasing poverty rate in Columbus by reaching out to their city council members through the city’s website here. Additionally, the Muckraker maintains a combined calendar of local government meetings which residents may attend in-person.

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