The Triangle’s broken economic ladder

We’ve been told over and over that with diligence and hard work, anyone in America can become successful. But for too many of us that is far from true. In fact, Raleigh and the rest of the Triangle are among the hardest places in the nation for young people at the bottom of the income ladder to move up.

The Triangle might rank first on the Forbes magazine list of the Best Places for Business and Career, but it’s 94th in economic mobility among the 100 largest commuting zones in the U.S.

“It is harder in the South than anywhere else in the nation for someone born at the bottom of the income ladder to make it higher up the ladder as an adult,” says the State of the South report from MDC. “If the American Dream centers on the belief that where you start out shouldn’t determine where you end up, that dream is far too elusive and its promises more illusory here than elsewhere in our nation.”

Charlotte is 7th on the Forbes list and 98th in mobility. Greensboro is 54th on the Forbes list and 95th in mobility. The South’s biggest powerhouse cities fare no better. Dallas is 8th on the Forbes list, 55th in mobility. Atlanta, 9th Best for Business, 96th in mobility. Houston is 10th on the Forbes list and 31st in mobility.

As N&O columnist Rob Christensen rightly suggested recently, there is a range of factors causing so many young people to be stuck at the bottom: suburban sprawl, poor mass transit, the location of public facilities, gentrification, the kinds of businesses we recruit and school policies. It is all that, and more.

Since publication of State of the South, we’ve found that leaders in big cities like Charlotte and small towns like Port St. Joe, Fla., all recognize that improving mobility for youth and young adults means building a new roadbed on ground that has been saturated with inequality. It means acknowledging the flawed design of systems created in eras of racial prejudice and finding leaders willing to look squarely at the structural inequities built into them.

To strengthen that sinking roadbed, the report says, we must build an “infrastructure of opportunity” – a coordinated system of pathways and supports to connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity. That requires aligning the work of our schools, colleges, social service agencies, nonprofits and community organizations with the needs of both young people and the region’s employers.

It’s starting to happen in Durham. Just ask Zavier Eure.

1 Where the Triangle ranks on the Forbes list of Best Places for Business and Career

94 Where it ranks in economic mobility among the 100 largest commuting zones in the US

7Where Charlotte ranks on the Forbes list of Best Places for Business and Career

98 Where it ranks in economic mobility

Eure was in the first graduating class last spring from the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability at Southern High School and spent the summer as an intern at the Durham manufacturing plant of Biogen, a global biotechnology company. There, Eure was a temporary member of Biogen’s global project engineering team tasked with creating a process flow diagram depicting each step in the drug purification process.

“I never took an engineering class, and I never had any interest in the field,” said Eure, an aspiring veterinarian. “But now I’m thinking I can put my engineering experience to good use in a company that works with robotic prosthetics for animals.”

He was one of the first Durham students to participate in a new career internship program launched by Biogen with Made in Durham, a nonprofit created and incubated at MDC, and its partners on the Business Engagement Team of the Durham YouthWork Summer Internship Program. These partners include Durham Public Schools, Durham Technical Community College and Youth Employed and Succeeding.

Made in Durham is an example of what it means to start building an infrastructure of opportunity. It’s a public-private partnership that strives to ensure all Durham youth and young adults complete a post-secondary credential and begin a rewarding career by the age of 25. This summer, Made in Durham matched 72 student interns with 21 local employers in the high-growth fields of health and life sciences, education, banking and construction. Overall, Made in Durham and the YouthWork Business Engagement Team recruited, trained, placed and evaluated 481 youth interns this summer. And they’re just getting started.

Economic mobility – the idea that your success is not dependent on your situation at birth – is core to our vision of America. While it’s always been a myth (particularly for women and people of color), we know ways to make mobility more realistic. By investing in the infrastructure of opportunity, we can get closer to making sure that young people like Zavier Eure have the chance to thrive.

David L. Dodson is the president of MDC, a nonprofit in Durham that helps organizations and communities close the gaps that separate people from opportunity.