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Land of opportunity? Not by a long shot

The prospects for escaping poverty are worse in Charlotte than in any other big metro area in the nation.

Any time Charlotte is worst in the country in anything, it should get residents’ attention. Economists at Harvard and Cal-Berkeley have produced a detailed study of income mobility and find that Charlotte ranks 50th among the 50 biggest U.S. cities, and 97th out of 100.

America is known as the land of opportunity, the study’s authors say, but the accuracy of that label depends upon where in America you live. In Charlotte and much of the South, most people have the opportunity to be about as well off as their parents, but no better.

Charlotte children born in the bottom 20 percent in household income have a 4.4 percent chance of reaching the top 20 percent. Poor children’s chances of moving to the top are double to almost triple that in places such as Seattle, San Jose, Boston, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Perhaps Charlotte kids are moving out of poverty, but just not to the top 20 percent? No. The report shows Charlotte ranked 98th of 100 on the overall movement of kids born to parents at the 25th percentile of income.

The research may be the most exhaustive of its kind. The economists compiled data from millions of earnings records, including all U.S. children born from 1980-82 and their incomes 30 years later.

Kids who grow up in Charlotte, they found, have less chance of moving up the income ladder than those in any developed country for which data are currently available.

This is troubling regardless of one’s political stripes. No one is guaranteed a certain income, but the idea of equal opportunity goes to America’s core. In Charlotte and all of the Carolinas, it’s a myth.

The researchers found five major factors that they say are correlated with income mobility: racial and income segregation; inequality; schools; social capital and family structure.

The poor tended to stay poor more in cities that are the most segregated along racial and income lines. When poor people are dispersed across middle-class neighborhoods, their children tend to fare better. That’s why the City Council’s approval last week of an affordable housing project in south Charlotte was an important moment. The children who grow up there will probably attend better schools and become friends with kids from a broader mix of income levels. In the long run, that will translate into better lives for them.

Carol Hardison, CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, sees another possible cause for Charlotte’s ranking: the relative newness of Charlotte’s wealth. Major philanthropy aimed at helping disadvantaged children, such as through Project LIFT, is a relatively recent phenomenon here. Older cities have enjoyed such efforts for generations.

“We have 150,000 people in poverty and one Project LIFT,” Hardison told the Observer editorial board. “Go to Boston or Philly – they have 100-year-plus philanthropists who have been involved with not just short-term solutions but doing the research and unwinding problems.”

There are no easy fixes, but awareness is a prerequisite. Then we need to encourage mixed-income neighborhoods, grow social capital and constantly work to reduce the student achievement gap. Perhaps Charlotte’s City Council could get started at its retreat this week.

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