To the casual visitor, Athens, Georgia seems like a charming southern town with classic and Antebellum architecture, a restored downtown full of shops and restaurants, a vibrant independent music scene, and the University of Georgia, the oldest and largest college in the state. But life for many of its residents isn’t so charming. Athens-Clark County has a poverty rate of 40 percent, the highest in counties with a population of more than 100,000 across the United States, according to the 2011 American Community Survey.
Homelessness is on the rise with local shelters at full capacity. Kerri Steele from the Athens Area Homeless Shelter says that she is getting more calls from people with college degrees and there is a wait list to get into her shelter. “A lot of people aren’t even trying anymore,” she says. Unlike its more prosperous neighbor Atlanta, Athens has many low-skilled, low-income workers and no black middleclass. “Athens is a town that was built for rich white guys 200 years ago and it’s a plantation town still today,” says Spencer Frye, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organization devoted to building affordable housing.
Manufacturing was very important in the 1970s but it left over time. University of Georgia, the town’s main employer, provides 8000 to 9000 jobs but many of those, once staffed by locals are now being staffed by students. Quenton Scott, a 27-year old local, says people from Athens either get out and go to college, stay and take a minimum wage job or they are in the streets and in and out of jail. “There is no big business in Athens, no big opportunities,” he says.