Atlanta is the worst city in the country to be born in poverty and the area has the nation’s most unfavorable income inequality, according to Keith Parker, CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia.

Parker, former general manager of MARTA, was the guest speaker at a Rotary Club of Sandy Springs meeting on Feb. 17. He now heads a Decatur-based nonprofit perhaps best known for its donation center and thrift stores through the communities of Buckhead, Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, along with the rest of the metro area.

Keith Parker, CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, speaks at a Rotary Club of Sandy Springs luncheon Feb. 17. (Kevin C. Madigan)

Parker said that while every economic indicator says the area is booming, “we’re starting to hear that the Atlanta metro is the worst place to be born poor if you aspire to be middle-class with upper-level income…You have a less than 4% chance of getting out of poverty. There are many neighborhoods that you can go to right now where If you are born in poverty, you will live in poverty your whole life and die in poverty, at a 96% level of certainty.”

Parker added that the region also has the nation’s worst income inequality. “That means there are more people who are doing very well and more people who are doing very poorly, and the gap between those two groups is the greatest here in metro Atlanta than anywhere else in the whole country.”

So what is Goodwill doing about it? “We put people to work. That’s our mission,” he said. “For 95 years we have helped people from all walks and strata find jobs….We serve people of all types of backgrounds in a completely no-judgement type zone. Not only do we connect them to jobs but we train them to do those jobs.”

Donations of clothing and household items are the organization’s lifeblood, and the profits are used for employment development. Goodwill has 65 local stores and receives some funding from the federal government to assist job candidates with disabilities and those who have some type of barrier to employment.

The need for workforce advancement is growing exponentially, with many jobs disappearing due to technology and automation, according to Parker, and those people will be coming through the Goodwill doors needing help with a new career or their next position.

“We have over 3,400 people on our teams and we have a presence throughout North Georgia that now has exceeded even Target. Everybody in our 45-county territory is a 10- to 15-minute drive from a Goodwill store,” said Parker.

A typical Goodwill customer is a 48-year-old college-educated female who earns more than 30 percent beyond the median income, Parker said. “There is a perception that people who shop at Goodwill don’t have enough money to shop anywhere else, but those of you who have kids particularly know that shopping at Goodwill has become a very cool thing. College students, senior citizens and young people shop with us, and everybody in between. Generally, we have a middle-class-oriented group who shop.”

Goodwill plans to open a third Sandy Springs location in late March at the Northridge shopping center on Roswell Road, replacing a Kroger supermarket. It’s in one of four shopping centers targeted by the city for redevelopment in a conceptual planning process that recently got started.

Asked why the company is putting yet another store in the same area, Parker responded, “What we found with Goodwills nationally, with very few exceptions, is that they don’t cannibalize off each other — they actually accent each other. So that customer who just stops at that Sandy Springs store or Perimeter store now will shop at both of them. Unlike Macy’s or Kohl’s, every single Goodwill you got into has a different mix of things and that’s why we have these shoppers who go to two or three stores a day because of the treasure-hunt aspect of it.”

He added there have been no store closures during his tenure, but that some have moved for logistical reasons. “The other thing we look at is the donor market and residential demographics [when opening new stores]. We want to make sure the area has a strong potential for donors.”

Parker touted Goodwill’s initiatives for helping female ex-prisoners find work, and a program called Youth Employment Services that partners with dozens of high schools.

“We have an enormous presence in education, and even on the environment,” he said. “By participating with Goodwill you are doing things for your carbon footprint that have as much of an impact as anything else you could possibly do.”

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Kevin C. Madigan is a freelance journalist based in metro Atlanta.