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New tool helps Charlotte measure progress on economic mobility

Leading On Opportunity

Charlotte has a new way to examine itself and its efforts to improve economic mobility called the Opportunity Compass. It attempts to measure whether the community is making progress on its pledge to improve the odds that children born in poverty will make it out. The tool devised by Leading On Opportunity aims to help nonprofits, philanthropists and government officials align efforts and guide strategy.

“Charlotte's really great about having different initiatives, but those things need to synch together, so the compass really begins to push us in that direction,” said Sherri Chisholm, who has led Leading On Opportunity since 2020.

Sherri Chisholm
Sherri Chisholm

The group was formed in 2017 to help oversee Charlotte’s efforts to improve economic mobility. Chisholm now describes it as a cross between a local think tank and community consulting firm that helps funders make smarter investments and nonprofits deliver smarter programming.

Theidea of a dashboard like this has long been discussed, following the2014 Chetty study that found the Charlotte region ranked last among major U.S. metro areas when it came to economic mobility. But it was hard for groups to decide on what measures help determine children’s odds.

The Opportunity Compass tracks data across four areas that the Opportunity Task Force focused itsrecommendations on: early care and education, college and career readiness, child and family stability and the impact of segregation. Data on social impact is expected to come soon. The compass uses many publicly available data points that economist Raj Chetty uses to measure economic mobility along with data designed to assess local goals. Those data points are then weighted based on feedback from community members to come up with an overall rating as well as those for the four areas.

“In that way, we can build a single tool that brings together the best of research, our local goals, and then also community expertise,” says Leading on Opportunity’s AJ Calhoun who designed the tool.

You can break data down into 33 points that include access to childcare, apprenticeships, proximity to grocery stores and residential segregation. Many of those can be further broken down by race and economic status. A gauge that ranges from best to worst accompanies each of the data points. So far, the compass only includes data from 2015-2019. Chisholm says it will act as a baseline for Charlotte’s efforts.

“It looks at what's happened before the pandemic so we can effectively assess what's happened as a result of the pandemic,” Chisholm said.

Overall, the compass shows Charlotte is half-way between best and worst with an arrow pointing up showing improvement.

A few surprises on the compass

Leading On Opportunity

For all of Charlotte’s investments focused on early childcare and education, the compass indicates things got worse in that area between 2015-2019. Although Mecklenburg County had been talking about expanding free pre-kindergarten for several years, there weren't any children in those extra 600 seats until 2018. (The program expanded after that.) Still, that doesn’t register on the compass. Calhoun says part of the reason is community input placed an emphasis on access and proximity to early care and education.

Leading On Opportunity

While homeownership rates overall decreased slightly between 2015 and 2019 to 59%, rates for those under the federal poverty line went up 2 percentage points to 27%.

Leading On Opportunity

Charlotte is used to hearing how segregated its schools are. The compass rates that pretty close to the worst. However, when it comes to neighborhood diversity, Charlotte rates relatively high.

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Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.