Rob Christensen

You don’t want to be poor in Raleigh

It is always reassuring when national publications, such as Money Magazine, confirm our prejudices by naming Triangle communities as great places to live.

Last week, it was Apex that was singled out. In the past it has been Cary and Raleigh. I am certainly not going to argue with such designations.

But there is one area in which the Triangle ranks near the bottom – upward mobility.

If you are a poor black kid in Raleigh or Durham, your chances of moving up into the middle class are among the worst in the country. That is according to a large national study, called The Equality of Opportunity Project, conducted by economists at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.

They sifted through data of 5 million families to study how growing up in different counties affected upward mobility. It found that where you grow up can have an important statistical impact on the ability to get ahead.

Wake and Durham ranked among the lowest 6 percent of counties in the country in upward mobility among low income families (families in the 25th percentile), according to the study.

Or to put it another way, if a child in a poor family was to grow up in Wake County instead of an average place, he would make $2,980, or 11 percent less, at age 26, according to the study. In Durham County it is 11 percent less; Orange, 10 percent less; Johnston, 5 percent less; and Chatham, 4 percent less.

Lack of upward mobility is a particular problem for North Carolina cities. A child from a poor family would earn 15 percent less by age 26 than a poor person nationally in Guilford County, 14 percent less in Mecklenburg County and 24 percent less in Forsyth County.

If you look at the top 100 most populous counties in the country, Wake ranked 88th in upward mobility among the poor, and Mecklenburg County ranked 99th.

A poor black child has a far better chance of getting ahead in Queens or Oakland or D.C. than he does in Raleigh, the study strongly suggests. Wake County ranks 154 out of the nation’s 2,478 counties in helping poor children up the income ladder.

Despite the Horatio Alger stories that we love, previous studies suggest that on average there is less mobility among the poor in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries such as Canada, Australia, France, Germany and Japan.

Unfortunately, the studies do not explore the reasons for the lack upward mobility.

I have my own theories. North Carolina’s cities have experienced most of their growth in recent decades and it has largely been suburban sprawl. So jobs are spread out and are hard to reach by public transportation – and most of the North Carolina’s public bus systems are bare bones.

That is particularly true in the Triangle where we have one of the few reverse commuting patterns in the country – with people leaving the city in the morning for their jobs at Research Triangle Park and returning to their homes in the city in the evening.

Most of the jobs in North Carolina’s cities tend to be white collar. The state has few industrial cities, which provide the kind of stepping-stone jobs for people climbing the economic ladder.

All sorts of public decisions influence upward mobility: investment in public transit; where to build public facilities, such as community colleges and sports arenas; regentrification and rezonings; what kinds of businesses to recruit; tax policy; and school policies, including diversity issues, to name just a few.

The Triangle is a great place to live. But it is not the best place to get ahead if you are starting at the bottom.