In the wake of Charlotte being ranked 50th out of 50 in economic mobility of the largest U.S. cities, there has been a push locally to erase that failing grade.
Efforts include improving the pay of the lowest paid public employees; building more affordable housing and expanding pre-K; strengthening job apprenticeship programs.
But will we ever know whether any of those things will improve Charlotte’s ranking?
The 2014 Harvard study that tracked mobility nationwide was based on children across the nation born in 1980 and 1981. They were in their mid-30s when the study was released, and researches said someone’s career earnings are mostly set by that point.
What if Charlotte’s mobility has already improved? What if it’s gotten worse?
“I think that’s a great question,” said city council member Julie Eiselt. “What are the metrics?”
Usually, when there is a public problem, there are annual data points that help track progress. Are more students graduating from high school? There is a way to measure that. Are third-grade reading scores going up? There is also data.
A researcher with Opportunity Insights, an offshoot of the original 2014 Harvard University mobility study, said the group plans additional studies – but has no plans to do another massive nationwide study of children born a decade later, in the early 1990s.
Brian Collier, an executive vice president with the Foundation of the Carolinas, is working extensively on improving economic mobility in Charlotte. He said Opportunity Insights will do another study of children born in 2017, but he noted that he will be long retired when it’s finished.
“The long-term answer – we won’t have one for 30 years,” Collier said. “But we can’t wait 30 years to see if we have made a difference.
He said he doesn’t like talking about Charlotte being 50th in terms of mobility.
“I believe that was a point in time, and I honestly don’t believe we are 50 out of 50 anymore,” he said. “But I see that in every metric there are wide disparities based on where you were born and where you live.”
He added: “I’m less concerned about whether we were worst. It was a useful thing to galvanize community spirit. But what I’ve tried to tell everyone all along is that I think the community is probably different, but probably not a lot different in west Charlotte or parts of east Charlotte.”
Collier and the Charlotte-based group Leading on Opportunity are working to create short-term metrics that can be tracked. They could include things like teen pregnancy and K-12 reading scores.
“These issues have taken 10 or 20 years of policies and challenges and actions, and it will take 10, 20 and 30 years to shift,” said Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, the executive director of Leading on Opportunity. “We are identifying ways to move the needle. The county has advocated for universal pre-K. That was a recommendation. The city is taking on affordable housing.”
But Collier said that trying to find the metrics that improve mobility is difficult. One example, he said, is high school graduation rates, which have long been seen as a measure of minimal educational success.
“But graduation rate has little to do with proficiency with job attainment,” he said. (This study from the Pew Charitable Trusts looked at education and economic mobility. It focused on the value of having a college degree as an important factor in moving up the economic ladder. It did not focus at all on a diploma as being critical to mobility, suggesting that, over time, the value of only finishing high school has diminished).
Collier said he believes having desegregated schools is important for mobility, but he says it's difficult to quantify.
He also said there is a misconception in the community that the re-segregation of Charlotte’s schools is the reason for the city’s low mobility score. He noted that the children who were a part of the study – born in 1980 and 1981 - went to CMS at a time when the district was less segregated than today, through busing.
"So a lot of people want to jump to the conclusion that Charlotte once had this great model of integrated schools, and that's gone and that's the reason we are downwardly mobile," he said.
Researchers have found that the children in the Harvard study attended CMS during the era of busing, which began in the early 1970s and continued throughout the 1980s. By the time those children attended high school, Mecklenburg schools had begun to re-sort themselves by race.
His theory is that perhaps it's not enough to desegregate a school, but classrooms should be also be mixed.
"Maybe the schools were integrated at the school house level," he said. "But at the classroom level, it was still highly segregated."
Another oddity is that affordable housing doesn’t necessarily translate into economic mobility. I have noted here that cities with high housing costs also have some of the best mobility rankings in the Harvard study.
Eiselt, who chairs Charlotte’s transportation committee, said she wants to improve mobility by making buses arrive more frequently. That would be a help to low-income workers, letting them spend more time with their children.
But would the city be best served by spending money on buses? Or should it consider giving people financial assistance to use for ride share companies?
In Charlotte and across the nation, bus ridership has plummeted, possibly because of companies like Lyft and Uber.
That’s just one of dozens of questions about mobility. And with no real data coming for decades, there will be few (definitive?) answers.
“This has been a struggle all along,” Collier said. “That’s why I don’t like it when people talk about 50 out of 50. Because eventually, we won’t be 50 out of 50. And will the urgency be gone?”