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Group gives Mecklenburg a B-minus in economic opportunity

For Opportunity Nation, a national campaign focused on expanding economic opportunity, a person’s chances for success are no longer determined just by their grade point average, but instead by another number – their ZIP code.

North Carolina – and specifically, Mecklenburg County – are among the areas facing unemployment, poverty and low graduation rates that stifle opportunities for young adults, Opportunity Nation representatives said Tuesday at a forum hosted by the Foundation for the Carolinas.

The state ranks 36th in the nation in its economic and social mobility on a 2012 index created by Opportunity Nation, a coalition of more than 250 nonprofits, businesses, and academic and faith-based institutions working to expand economic opportunity.

At the county level, Mecklenburg earns a B-minus, the group said.

The index, called the Opportunity Index, analyzes the opportunities that states and counties offer. It combines 16 economic, educational and civic health indicators to rank all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The indicators include data such as the unemployment rate, median household income, on-time high school graduation rates and volunteerism.

Education is weighted heavily by the index because “when states don’t have a lot of people in school or work, we’re losing out on their talent today,” said Elizabeth Clay-Roy, deputy director for Opportunity Nation.

In this category, North Carolina lags behind the national average of 14.7 percent – with 15.4 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds not in school or not working.

The state’s No. 36 ranking was also driven down by the unemployment rate and percentage of people living below the poverty line. Both remain higher than the national average, with North Carolina’s unemployment rate at 8.8 percent in May. But its scores were buoyed by low crime.

Vermont ranks No. 1 in the index for its high emphasis on education. Nevada ranked 51st, reduced by a high percentage of youths not in school and not working.

Mecklenburg earned its B-minus rating based on three lagging indicators: jobs, postsecondary completion and on-time high school graduation. Opportunity Nation leaders said the county would have to improve in the three areas to rise to a B rating – the highest current rating in the state, belonging to Orange County, home to Chapel Hill.

At the Tuesday event, attendees spoke of initiatives underway in Mecklenburg. Steve Partridge, CEO of Charlotte Works, said his workforce-development organization is focusing on getting K-12 students into the workforce by launching a Web portal to educate employers on how to arrange internships.

UNC Charlotte Urban Institute leaders said their organization is running studies that affect Charlotte’s youths, including an evaluation of the Mayor’s Youth Employment Program and researching disengaged youths who have been incarcerated in Mecklenburg.

Clay-Roy said she hopes news of North Carolina and Mecklenburg’s Opportunity Index scores will spark change in the region.

“We’re not researchers who put the index out there to sit on shelves,” she said. “We want this to be active research.”

McCabe: 704-358-5197; Twitter: mccabe_caitlin
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