Op-Ed

HB2 wage provision steps on necks of low-wage workers

For years, Greater Salem Church, one of the oldest African-American churches in Charlotte, has sent a group downtown on Sundays to help out the homeless with food and supplies. Charlotte boasts one of the state’s highest per capita income rates and its greatest accumulations of wealth, but half of North Carolina’s 10 most severely economically distressed census tracts are in the heart of the Queen City.
For years, Greater Salem Church, one of the oldest African-American churches in Charlotte, has sent a group downtown on Sundays to help out the homeless with food and supplies. Charlotte boasts one of the state’s highest per capita income rates and its greatest accumulations of wealth, but half of North Carolina’s 10 most severely economically distressed census tracts are in the heart of the Queen City. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina’s “pioneering” rush to bigotry, as the New York Times and the Washington Post have named it, continues to instruct, and appall, the nation. This is apparently what Gov. Pat McCrory means by rebranding. We’re no longer just first in flight or freedom. “First in bigotry,” I’ll concede, does have a certain ring. Mississippi weeps.

As an ancillary offshoot to their suppressive campaigns, the governor and General Assembly have developed a distinctive and defining expertise – the ability to take a non-existing problem, hyperventilate about the phantom and then craft a solution that wounds and debases the most vulnerable members of society.

Actually, HB2 puts the scare tactic on stilts. While Senate leader Phil Berger, McCrory and House Speaker Tim Moore dissembled to injure the LGBT community – cynically hoping to energize a base for November – they also, of course, quietly made it illegal for North Carolina cities to raise the minimum wage. So they not only used a non-existent problem to fashion a solution that purposefully inflicts damage, they also took a massive, concrete, actual challenge and made it impossible to deploy a significant remedy to address it. The sweet and quick handiwork of anti-problem solvers.

Charlotte famously triggered the bullies’ wrath. But the debilitation is broader – barring all municipal governments from trying to lift wages by mandate. Still, Charlotte itself provides potent illustration of the challenges faced by low-income urban Tar Heel workers. Its tremors echo in Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. A look at Charlotte’s unfolding economic stratification and hardship suggests why non-feudal cities and states across the nation are increasing, sometimes even dramatically, minimum-wage standards.

10 The percentage of North Carolinians who live in Mecklenburg County

15 The percentage of the state’s jobs that are in the Charlotte metro area

25 The percentage of Mecklenburg households that earn over $100,000 a year

30 The percentage of Charlotte’s full-time workers who make less than $23,500 a year

5 The number of North Carolina’s 10 most severely economically distressed census tracts that are in the heart of the Queen City

Charlotte is, on many fronts, an economic powerhouse. It can boast one of the state’s highest per capita income rates and its greatest accumulations of wealth. It is North Carolina’s biggest city, the nation’s 17th largest. It’s also the third-fastest growing metropolis in the country. Mecklenburg County has over 10 percent of North Carolina’s population and over 15 percent of its jobs. The Charlotte metropolitan area produces a quarter of the state’s personal income. Its median income is 21 percent higher than that of the state at large. Twenty-five percent of Mecklenburg County households earn over $100,000 a year, much higher than the figure statewide.

Still, the prosperity is not widely enjoyed. Stanford professor Raj Chetty’s famed mobility studies concluded that Charlotte has the worst income mobility in the United States. If you’re born poor in Charlotte, you are more apt to stay that way than anywhere else. Almost 30 percent of Charlotte’s full-time workers make less than $23,500 a year. They aren’t fresh-faced teenagers looking for work experience before heading off to Yale. The majority are over 30. They are disproportionally female, black, Hispanic and Native-American. They work long hours. They often can’t make ends meet.

Over the past decade, the number of Charlotteans living in poverty nearly doubled, the third sharpest increase in the country. The poverty rate for working-age African-Americans (22 percent) and Hispanics (25 percent) is more than double that of whites (9 percent). Five percent of white kids in Charlotte are impoverished – 36 percent of black children and 39 percent of Hispanic kids are. The Brookings Institute reported that, over the last dozen years, Charlotte saw the country’s sixth-steepest rise in concentrated poverty. In 2000, 1 in 10 Mecklenburg residents lived in neighborhoods where over 20 percent of locals were poor. Now it’s more than 1 in 4. Half of North Carolina’s 10 most severely economically distressed census tracts are in the heart of the Queen City.

Since 2002, middle-income jobs ($45,000-$60,000) have been increasingly replaced by strongly stratified employment opportunities. Eighty-four percent of job gains have been either low wage (under $36,000) or high wage (over $82,000). Four of the 10 highest categories of newly created positions don’t deliver a living wage. Salaries for low-wage categories of employment have typically been stagnant or actually declined. Food preparation workers make 7 percent less than they did 10 years ago. Managers make over 30 percent more. The unfolding polarization is predicted to rise.

Charlotte’s explosion of low-wage service jobs, essential to meet the varied needs of notably higher income residents, poses a pointed moral question. Families at the bottom are squeezed by a daunting regime of rising costs and shrinking resources. Pockets of poverty and distress mushroom. A city of commercial prowess thus becomes a potent landscape of economic apartheid. Amid great and burgeoning wealth, stunning numbers are locked out – denied meaningful prospects to thrive, as they serve others who prosper.

The North Carolina General Assembly has intervened decisively to make sure it stays that way.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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