Upward mobility in North Carolina lags the rest of the nation, leaving most children of low-income families stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder without a discernible path forward, according to a new report.
The report, released Wednesday, found that in 22 of 24 worker commuting zones in the state, the rate of mobility is in the bottom quarter nationally. Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro rank in the bottom 10 of the nation’s 100 largest commuting zones.
The report, “North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity,” was done by MDC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center in Durham and commissioned by the Charlotte-based John M. Belk Endowment. It was built on data from national economic mobility studies, and profiled eight areas of North Carolina that are tackling the issue.
The problem is likely to get worse as poor and minority children with the least education become a larger share of the population – spelling trouble for the state’s future workforce. Projections show that more jobs will require more education at a time when a growing proportion of North Carolinians will be less prepared.
“North Carolina has a significant mobility problem when it comes to the chances of moving from the bottom to the top,” said David Dodson, president of MDC. “Most children born to low-income families in North Carolina will not reach median income as adults unless current patterns change decisively.”
The report paints a grim picture laced with statistics:
▪ While mobility varies by location, only about one-third of children born into North Carolina families making less than $25,000 annually manage to climb into middle- and upper-income levels as adults.
▪ A family of one parent and one child needs income of $21 an hour to cover basic living expenses in North Carolina, yet only 26 percent of full-time jobs pay median earnings of that amount.
▪ A child born in Wilson to a family in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution has only a 1 in 4 chance of rising to middle- or upper-income categories. That child is most likely to remain poor for a lifetime.
“If we don’t change that, we’re going to have a corrosive civic culture and corrosive state and community,” Dodson said. “So this is really important. The upward mobility story, the American dream, is really central to our notions of a successful life. And the sad story is too many people are stuck, generation to generation, at the bottom.”
Data show that upward mobility is worst in the South, so North Carolina resembles some of its neighbors. The issue is especially acute in rural areas, but it also persists in pockets of prosperous urban areas such as Charlotte and the Triangle.
Like many studies, the MDC report concludes that education beyond high school is an economic imperative. Only 5 percent of North Carolinians with a college degree live in poverty, compared with 31 percent of those with only a high school education. But, the report contends, education is not enough. Young people need to find connections to jobs that pay well.
The situation is not hopeless, Dodson said. North Carolina has important assets and ingredients that can be brought to bear – a large network of community colleges and universities and early college high schools that give young people a jump-start on college credit. Also, apprenticeship and workplace training programs are growing.
No one institution can solve the problem, Dodson said, and it will take a more systemic approach and collaboration among education, business and economic development sectors. But more than logistics and teamwork, communities need to develop a vision of economic advancement.
The report highlighted promising efforts in eight areas of North Carolina that could be scaled up to reach more people.
In Vance, Granville, Franklin and Warren counties, education leaders in schools and the community college worked together to establish early college programs and clearer pathways to careers.
In Guilford County, where the manufacturing economy used to provide good middle-class jobs, a broad coalition of schools, colleges, community foundations and others forged partnerships. They went after national funding for various new initiatives.
Last fall, Guilford was selected as a “Say Yes to Education” community by a national foundation that will hire employees and commit about $20 million. The Guilford Education Alliance plans to raise $70 million for an endowment that will provide scholarships, and it already has about $37 million in pledges.
All Guilford high school graduates regardless of income will be eligible for tuition scholarships, after federal aid, to in-state public colleges and universities. One hundred private universities around the country will offer scholarships to families who make less than $75,000, said Winston McGregor, executive director of Guilford Education Alliance.
To help them along the way, students will get support services in addition to scholarships.
“It’s this piece of gravity that not only pulls kids along the pathway, but it gets the whole community to pay attention, which is kind of remarkable,” McGregor said.
It is already having ripple effects, before the first scholarship is awarded.
“Our economic development folks are like, ‘Hey, this is a major recruiting tool,’ ” she said.