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Report Confirms Charlotte's Lack Of Upward Mobility, Offers Priorities

A new report confirms that Charlotte still lags other major cities when it comes to economic mobility.
David Boraks
A new report confirms that Charlotte still lags other major cities when it comes to economic mobility.

An often-cited 2014 study by Harvard University researchers ranked Charlotte last for economic mobility among the 50 largest U.S. metro areas. Some of the same researchers have now taken a deeper look at Charlotte in a new report out this week. And while the numbers remain grim, the analysis also offers a road map to improvement.

The 2014 study was led by Harvard professor Raj Chetty. His new research group Opportunity Insights chose Charlotte for the first in a series of follow-up studies. The findings were unveiled in a virtual meeting Thursday hosted by the Charlotte Opportunity Initiative, organized by the Foundation for the Carolinas and Leading on Opportunity.

The new report says children who grow up in Charlotte's low-income households still have a poor chance of escaping poverty — and new numbers prove it.

For example: Children from low-income families — defined as households that earn $27,000 — can expect household income as adults of just $26,000 a year, versus $49,000 for those from high-income families.

Low economic mobility disproportionately affects people of color. A Black child growing up in a low-income home can expect a household income of $21,599 a year at age 34. It's $32,087 for a Hispanic child, and $22,637 for a native American child. A white child can expect $34,256.

By this measure, Mecklenburg County ranks 96th overall among the nation's 100 largest counties for upward mobility, the report says.

David Williams
Harvard University
David Williams

Researcher David Williams said that translates into a future problem for Charlotte.

"There are almost 45,000 children growing up in poverty in Charlotte-Mecklenburg," Williams said. "And if the status quo is maintained, if we have those same rates of upward mobility and things don't change, 26,000 of those children will remain lower income, making less than $31,000 a year in adulthood."

'Outlier' Neighborhoods

But Williams said there are exceptions. The Olde Whitehall neighborhood in west Charlotte has a high poverty rate, but it also has a high rate of economic mobility. Neighborhoods like these tend to have a wider mix of incomes and stronger connections between people of different backgrounds, he said.

"There are these outliers, right?" Williams said. "These places that have high levels of social capital and neighborhood cohesion, and are really able to support their children effectively."

The report says Charlotte needs to promote those attributes city wide, by spreading out affordable housing and desegregating neighborhoods and schools. It also calls for investing more in high-poverty schools and improving access to higher education.

Researcher David Williams cited Olde Whitehall in west Charlotte as a neighborhood where low income does not automatically mean poor upward mobility.
David Williams
Opportunity Insights
Researcher David Williams cited Olde Whitehall in west Charlotte as a neighborhood where low income does not automatically mean poor upward mobility.

Williams said Charlotte should look for lessons from these areas.

"And what other lessons can we learn from Charlotte, to apply to the rest of the community, and hopefully to the rest of the country?" he asked.

The report also finds that some area colleges and universities have a greater effect on upward mobility than others. And not surprisingly, the researchers say that the COVID-19 pandemic is "likely exacerbating disparities in Charlotte."

Charlotte's Leading on Opportunity initiative plans to use the report to spark conversations with policy makers and citizens in the coming months.

Williams said the new data can drive policy changes, but it will take more than that.

"Big Data is powerful. But it's all about political will, and finding organizations, people and communities who are willing to use the research to really move towards action," Williams said.

In introductory remarks Thursday night, Foundation for the Carolinas Executive Vice President Brian Collier noted that the community has made some progress since the 2014 report. He named two: City and private sector efforts that raised more than $270 million in public and private funds for affordable housing, and Mecklenburg County's decision to launch a pre-Kindergarten program.

"I know that there are some out there who think we've done enough research and the time is now to act. And I agree with that," Collier said. "But the two paths of research and action are not mutually exclusive. In fact, since the report was released a little over three years ago, our community has acted boldly."

Read the report at https://opportunityinsights.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/OI-CharlotteReport.pdf


  1. Invest more in programs that directly support the education and health of low-income children.
  2. Use housing policy to deconcentrate poverty and reduce segregation.
  3. Ensure all high school graduates have access to colleges and universities that are likely to increase their earnings across their lifetime.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.