Finding Home: A Big Data Tool May Help Charlotte Move People Out Of Poverty

Feb 4, 2019

The neighborhood around Kilborne Park in east Charlotte doesn’t look so different than those that surround it. It has a couple of apartment complexes and some wide streets lined with small, brick ranch-style homes, tri-levels and big trees. Its affordability, many homes are now priced around $200,000, attracted Tim McManus to the neighborhood ten years ago. 

Tim McManus moved to a neighborhood around Kilborne Park ten years ago for its big lots and affordable homes. He's with his wife Ginny and their newborn baby.
Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE

“Just kind of feels connected for a lot of those staple things like transportation to wherever you might work, someplace to get outside, some space of your own," McManus said. "That just is comforting."

But for people born to low-income parents, there is a difference.

Those who grew up here in the 70s and 80s ended up making about $6,000 a year more than those living in neighborhoods just a few blocks away. 

How do we know this?  The same way we know that Charlotte came in last of the country’s 50 biggest cities in terms of economic mobility – data meticulously compiled and mapped by researchers from Harvard, Brown and the census bureau. Those maps show a child’s odds of escaping poverty on the city and regional level. 

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“[That] is interesting and I think shows some patterns that can be helpful,” David Williams, a policy director with the group formed by those researchers called Opportunity Insights, said.

“But in terms of thinking about policy," Williams said. "It’s probably not very helpful for us to say, ‘Hey Charlotte, look at a place like Dubuque, Iowa.’”

Their latest project is a map of the U.S. that allows anyone to trace the roots of today’s affluence and poverty right down to the neighborhood level. It involved crunching the IRS and census data of 20 million people.

“We’re able to look at kids who were born in the late 1970s through the mid-80s and look at factors like race, the income of the families when they grew up, and gender, and then actually see their long-term outcomes in adulthood,” Williams said. 

That way they can form a picture of where children have the best shot at getting ahead. It includes, for example, data on income, incarceration and teen pregnancy rates.

A digital map shows Charlotte in varying shades of red and blue. The shades of red, indicating levels of low mobility, encircle the blue, affluent wedge of southeast Charlotte. When you look at Charlotte this way, it confirms some assumptions and challenges others, Brian Collier with Foundation for the Carolinas said. The foundation has helped convene groups around economic mobility. The gradations on the map, he said, are key.

“When we started in this in 2013, what we knew was that mobility was bad in Charlotte. And, basically, that painted with a broad brush,” said Collier. “When you look at it at this level it is very clear, there are differences and variability across the community.”

Brian Collier with Foundation for the Carolinas has been convening public and private groups in Charlotte around economic mobility.
Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE

Before seeing the Opportunity Atlas, Collier said, he thought children born in areas of affluence were mobile, whereas those born in poor neighborhoods would likely be stuck in poverty. He said the map disabused him of that “simple way” of thinking. 

“What it’s telling you is that we have to continuously challenge our urban myths about the city, about how people escape poverty, what it’s like to live in an area of affluence and how our community is divided up demographically,” Collier said.  

If you set the map to look at only African Americans from low-income families, there’s much more variability across the city. Areas like Cotswold and Olde Providence North in affluent parts of south Charlotte have lower than national average mobility rates for this group. 

Opportunity Atlas set to show mobility of African Americans from low-income families.
Credit https://www.opportunityatlas.org/ / Opportunity Insights

“What I’m hypothesizing is that just because you’re born in an area of higher income does not mean that you have access to all of the things in that community that would help you be mobile and, in fact, you may be cut off from them,” Collier said. “And you’re certainly not having the benefit of social capital, which is relationships and networks that help you move forward.”

Across west and east Charlotte, there are poor neighborhoods where African-Americans from low-income families appear to be highly mobile.

“We need to find out what’s going on in those areas,” Collier said. 

The neighborhood in east Charlotte surrounding Kilborne Park is one of those that popped out to researchers. One thing that sets it apart is that it’s racially diverse. That’s a pattern they’re seeing in areas where kids from low-income families are having better outcomes. 

“The real work that we have to do now is to go talk to people in those communities, to go really drive the streets, learning from them, finding out the history because a lot of this is telling you a story that began a long time ago about community investments, about segregation, about people pushing one another apart in our community,” Collier said. 

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There are some ways Collier sees the city being able to use the Opportunity Atlas right away. For example, targeting affordable housing in areas where there are higher mobility and lower land costs. 

The Charlotte Housing Authority is already trying to do something like that with Section 8 vouchers. It’s encouraging a few families with young children to try to rent in neighborhoods CHA has classified as moderate and high opportunity – and supplementing the vouchers to make that a possibility.

Big data around economic mobility has become the talk of Charlotte leaders and groups trying to move families out of poverty.

“Let me dream for a minute,” Michael DeVaul, Social Responsibility Officer for the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, said.

Michael DeVaul with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte says the Opportunity Atlas will make it easier for groups to collaborate.
Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE

There’s access to a lot of data in Charlotte and there are efforts to consolidate and overlay the data on the Opportunity Atlas. DeVaul zooms in on the Wilmore neighborhood just southwest of uptown and checks out a long list of statistics, including the teen pregnancy rate, which is higher than 50 percent.   

“I mean these are all things that different organizations know probably independently," DeVaul said. "If you’re aimed at teenage pregnancy, you’re going to probably know that, right? I wouldn’t know that.

"But now, I have more information that says to me, ‘Well, all those girls that come in, and those boys that come in their teenage years, I probably need to partner with somebody who - based on the rate - is talking about the responsibility of parenting at a very early age.”

The atlas was released in October and community leaders are just beginning to try to understand how it could inform policy. DeVaul said it would be a mistake to think of it only in terms of what’s keeping people in poverty. 

“If you plot where are the assets, it’s also where to hold institutions accountable for making it better,” he said. 

What galvanized Charlotte as a city – that 50 out of 50 ranking – may help it improve with more precision. 

WFAE is taking a year-long look at Charlotte's affordable housing problem through our series, Finding Home. Every Monday in 2019, we’ll have stories that examine the problem, seek solutions, and bring you stories from neighborhoods small and large, both in and outside Charlotte. Don't miss a segment. Sign up for the Best of WFAE weekly newsletter to get the latest Finding Home along with the other most important news of the week.