During the heat of summer, teenagers take to intersections and street corners in Atlanta to sell bottled water to drivers, trying to sell as much as possible in the seconds before the traffic light flicks to green.
But these young water vendors have come under scrutiny. In response, Atlanta has begun a council designed to support entrepreneurship for them.
It all started earlier this summer. Teens have long sold water on the street, but in June and July, incidents of violence made local headlines. An 18-year-old was fatally shot by another teen on June 27 while selling water. A few teenagers selling water were arrested after they threatened others. And police arrested a 15-year-old after he robbed two children selling water. In another incident, a 9-year-old was hit by a car. The driver initially stopped but then left the scene of the accident.
Part of Atlanta’s response to all of this has been familiar, with police cracking down on “unpermitted sales of water by youth.” It’s the same story in lots of places during the summer. In 2017, three teenagers were handcuffed by undercover officers for selling water on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In 2018, a 14-year-old was arrested outside the Philadelphia Zoo after selling water. In 2019, an officer took a 19-year-old to the ground for selling water in Clinton, Maryland.
Just like in Atlanta, most of these youth are Black.
“It is a shame that in a city that prides itself on being a hub for commerce and trade, being a hub for upward mobility among Black people, that we don’t reflect those values through and through, particularly when it comes to folks that are supporting non-traditional economies,” says Devin Barrington-Ward, an Atlanta community organizer and managing director of the Black Futurists Group, a social justice innovation firm. “When it involves Black children, we always see an overzealous response where the first response is to send in the police.”
But in addition to police, Atlanta tried something new. Atlanta’s mayor convened an advisory council in June designed to study teenagers selling water and recommend opportunities to develop their entrepreneurship drive. Council members and city staff visited kids to gather information. The council’s report came out in August. They found that youth selling water average between 12 and 16 years old. Many preferred to make money in an entrepreneurial way rather than with a traditional job.
The report had 13 recommendations designed to promote youth entrepreneurship throughout Atlanta. These include partnering with Atlanta Public Schools, talking with families, and opening centers of hope to help take care of basic needs such as food and mental health.
(The three co-chairs of the advisory council didn’t respond to multiple emails from Next City requesting comment.)
The council cited a case study in Baltimore, which faced a debate over young people squeegeeing car windshields.
“What do you want us to do for money?” James, a 16-year-old high schooler squeegeeing cars in Baltimore, told Baltimore Magazine in 2019. “Cut grass? That’s a white people thing. There ain’t no grass around here.”
Baltimore launched a program to connect squeegeeing youth with resources to earn income in other ways. Ten months into the program, 27 youth were employed full-time and 39 youth were re-engaged in school.
But there are more systemic issues at play, says Lester Spence, a professor of political science who studies racial politics at Johns Hopkins University.
“It does seem as if Atlanta spent more resources trying to figure out what’s going on with the kids and have taken a bit more of a non-punitive stance towards them,” Spence says. “But at the same time, the same forces drive these kids wherever they appear. You’re talking about cities with significant levels of deep inequality. And these kids are usually coming from poor backgrounds and they’re either wiping windows or they’re selling bottles to a certain population of drivers, and that generates conflict for the city. And rather than deal with the poverty question, which is a systemic collective issue, they try to deal with maybe the circumstances of the individual kids at best.”
Young water bottle vendors who enter a program may leave street vending, but they will be quickly replaced by other kids selling water. “The issue isn’t kids selling water,” Spence says. “The issue is poverty.”
Indeed, the Atlanta council’s report found that 76 percent of Black youth live in areas considered high-poverty, compared to only 6 percent of white children. And 85 percent of all jobs in Atlanta are located in majority-white neighborhood planning units on the city’s northside.
That bears out in the water vendors’ motivations: Many told the council that they sold bottles to financially support their households.
“Imagine the message that it sends to young people. ‘Well, you’ve ignored my schools. You’ve ignored my community. You’ve ignored the fact that unemployment has been sky-high since before I was even a twinkle in my parents’ eye,’” Barrington-Ward says. “And the only time when the city does show up, they show up with police.”
Barrington-Ward says the recommendations don’t honor the entrepreneurial spirit of the kids, who recognize that they can earn more and maintain more flexible schedules by running their own business.
The council report found that young vendors make $100-$300 a day selling water either through direct sales or gratuities. (A local restaurant consultant helped two teen vendors get jobs at a restaurant, but they worked there only one day. They found selling water to be more profitable.)
Barrington-Ward would like to see Atlanta Public Schools and the city look at creating opportunities to contract youth vendors. That way, young people can fit work into their schedule or incorporate it into a work-study program while still having their own business. And establishing a youth vendor permitting process could include classes at school that teach proper conduct and business practices.
Safely selling water is a concern, so Barrington-Ward would like to see more signage and for the city to designate which intersections aren’t safe places to sell.
Spence says Atlanta needs to have a larger conversation about resource allocation and how it affects systemic issues in neighborhoods where water vendors live. After all, Atlanta spends one-third of its budget — about $218 million — on police, and during Amazon’s national search for a second headquarters, the city offered $87 million in tax credits and $2.2 billion in infrastructure investments.
“It’s not as if Atlanta is broke. There just isn’t the political will to restructure the budget to deal with the systemic issues,” Spence says. “We think about these cities as poor. They’re not poor at all. It’s that they have their resources extracted from them.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She writes on a range of topics with specialties in city design, business and death. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, CityLab, U.S. News & World Report, and other national and local outlets.