Upward mobility remains an elusive hope for many in the South

Think of all the parents, in all those humble homes, who have worked hard and tried to save a little money so they could send their kids to college or at least help them, hoping to make their children’s lives better and easier than their own.

“If you’ll go to college,” the parent says, “then you’ll have more chances than I had, because there are opportunities everywhere. I want you to have it better.”

And yet that idealistic aim, that corner of the American Dream, remains elusive. A remarkable and thorough report from MDC in Durham studies several communities in the South, including Charlotte and Durham, where the hills to opportunity remain steep. But in those communities are leaders trying to pull people up.

MDC, a nonprofit nearing its 50th anniversary, has long worked on helping people get out of poverty through work, originally assisting younger people in moving from the transitioning Southern economy of agriculture to a more varied industrial-type of economy. Its research over the years has helped communities help their people. And its “State of the South” report for 2014 is a good example of how the organization focuses not just on problems but also on the paths to solutions.

The report is not a summation of hopeless circumstances and pie-in-the-sky dreams. It notes that in these Southern communities are leaders really working on expanding options for young people and in helping people move up that ladder of opportunity their parents referenced. Says MDC President David Dodson in his letter accompanying the report: “We hope to spur leaders across the South to examine patterns of youth and young adult mobility and success in their communities, to examine who is – and is not – realizing the American Dream and why, and to create a shared agenda for building a vigorous and pervasive opportunity infrastructure.”

Durham is a good example of a Southern city with hindrances and hopes. The report opens at the DPAC, the spectacular performing arts center, and notes that the pride-inducing American Tobacco Complex is one block away. But in the other direction is the Durham jail.

Durham is booming: downtown development, the ever-expanding Duke University medical complex, affluent residents connected to Research Triangle Park. But it has crime and poverty, and as in those other communities MDC profiles, young people have trouble escaping their difficult beginnings.

But the city is doing several things to help those younger folks. Several organizations are intervening with children in low-income areas to help them get ready for kindergarten. And the public schools, with the help of foundations, are working to offer students an accelerated chance to be exposed to college work. Durham Tech (a community college) and N.C. Central University are working together to help Durham Tech students move on to a four-year degree at NCCU.

For its part, the city isn’t depending on others to take on poverty. It has a local program addressing the poverty in one neighborhood that will then address it in another, and then another.

There’s still a struggle, and there will be for a while, which is something the other cities profiled by MDC’s report share. But the point is that education remains the key to upward mobility. And when opportunities are there, the young people who move up help their cities move up as well.