It’s hard to imagine a bigger gulf than the one between academic researchers crunching data at Harvard and families trapped by poverty and hopelessness in Charlotte.
The two came together in the public imagination four years ago, when professors labeled Charlotte the worst of the country’s 50 biggest commuting areas at giving children of poverty a chance to move into affluence. The sting of that label has driven sweeping change in the way local leaders talk about public policy, social justice and daily life.
Now the research team that shamed Charlotte into action has signed on to work with the city’s public and private officials to see whether data can help policy and philanthropy bring real-life change. They bring a massive database compiled by academics — with information on income, family status, rent, race, immigration and more — and are sharing it with the public as well as the experts.
Brian Collier of the Foundation for the Carolinas says the infusion of expertise, coupled with the resolve of local politicians, donors and activists, could transform Charlotte — ideally, by the time the nation zooms in for the Republican National Convention in 2020.
“I think that everything needs to be focused over the next two years on opportunity. Every investment, every discussion, every church sermon should be around this idea of how do we lift up our kids,” Collier said. “If we could focus on this really intently for the next two years I think the country will be watching us and wanting to learn.”
Even as the 2014 report on mobility and opportunity made waves in North Carolina — Charlotte was dead last and Raleigh was only two spots above it — it also spurred the researchers to think about what they could do beyond reporting grim statistics. Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty, lead author of that study, which also included researchers from University of California at Berkeley, heads a new nonprofit group called Opportunity Insights, dedicated to figuring out what can break the generational chains of poverty and racism.
It’s backed by some of the country’s billionaire philanthropists: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Overdeck Family Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Organizers declined to say how much the project costs, but the Charlotte contribution alone is $1 million, coming from the Gambrell Foundation, Collier said. No public money is budgeted.
Opportunity Insights, based at Harvard and working with economists from Brown University, has assigned three staff to work with Charlotte. The group is also working with partners in Seattle, Minneapolis and Detroit.
David Williams, formerly with the Detroit mayor’s office, is policy director for the Charlotte partnership.
Williams says the original study unmasked a disturbing reality that had been hidden by growth and prosperity in Charlotte and other Southeastern cities: Big chunks of the population, especially African-Americans born into poverty, weren’t faring any better than counterparts in Rust Belt cities like Detroit.
Because Charlotte’s public and private leaders used the bad news “as a rallying cry,” Williams says, his crew is now poised to analyze what’s working and what’s not with local initiatives on affordable housing, early childhood education and other efforts to open doors of opportunity.
“Charlotte had the opportunity to be a leader,” Williams said recently. “A lot of cities are starting to think about opportunity in the general sense.”
Big data gets local
At the heart of this partnership is the Opportunity Atlas, , a database created by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Harvard and Brown team that is newly available to the public at www.opportunityatlas.org.
The atlas opens with a map of the United States divided into more than 700 “commuting zones.” Zoom in and 70,000 census tracts, or neighborhoods, appear.
Tied to each tract are data from the U.S. Census Bureau and IRS on income, education, incarceration and family characteristics. All together, the atlas contains more than 20 million data points on 96 percent of the country’s population born between 1978 and 1983. It follows up to see how they were doing in 2014-15.
It’s designed to be a rough snapshot of how the children raised in each census tract were doing as they reached their early 30s.
The atlas defaults to the median household income for 2014-15, but it can be shifted using a dropdown box at the top right. There are more than 30 topics to choose from, including employment rates, college completion rates and family characteristics.
Users can also change the characteristics of the people they want to look up, narrowing their selection by race or gender of the child who grew up in the neighborhood or by their parent’s income. So, someone interested in how well middle-income African-American boys who grew up in west Charlotte were doing in 2014-15 can click on “middle,” “black” and “male.”
Consider, for instance, the data on children who grew up in the Eagle Lake census tract, southwest of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The area landed in the middle of the pack for overall income, with the young adults who grew up there averaging $42,000 a year.
But the black children from that slice of Eagle Lake’s past grew up to average $21,000 a year, with 72 percent employed, almost 7 percent incarcerated and 23 percent married. Their white counterparts averaged $52,000 a year, with 80 percent employed, 0 percent incarcerated and 61 percent married.
While the atlas data is extensive, it can also be outdated and incomplete. In the decades since the children who were tracked began their lives in Charlotte, the area has grown and diversified. School assignments have changed dramatically. Some neighborhoods have gentrified while others have declined. International families, especially Latino ones, have become a major presence in what used to be a black-and-white city.
That means some of today’s census tracts bear little resemblance to the 1970s and ‘80s. For instance, the Boulevard Homes census tract, home to a public housing project when the research began, has been redeveloped through Renaissance West Community Initiatives, a public and private quest to provide cradle-to-career support for residents.
“We have a sense of what’s happening locally,” said Stephanie Cooper-Lewter, executive director of Leading On Opportunity, a Charlotte nonprofit created after the 2014 study. “Data can either be numbers or stories. We need both of those touchstones to effect change.”
UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute will be part of the partnership, a link that officials say will add a layer of local expertise and leave UNCC with a stronger research capability. The Gambrell donation will support the UNCC work, as well as community engagement and pilot projects, Collier said.
Looking for exceptions
At first glance, the atlas seems to show a pattern that many in the Charlotte region already recognize: A crescent of poverty and disadvantage arcing across Charlotte, with affluence concentrated in a south Charlotte wedge and the suburbs.
But the ability to break out data by lots of factors means the partners can search for anomalies that could guide investment and policy, Collier said. One of the biggest surprises he encountered as he pored over a preview of the data was that not every low-income area has the same limits on generational opportunity — nor is every high-income area rich in opportunity for all.
Local policymakers might seek neighborhoods where rents are relatively low but opportunity seems strong and use that knowledge to shape housing efforts, he said. On the other hand, some prosperous areas may have to face their own inequalities.
“What we can see from the atlas is that just because a child moves to a high-income area doesn’t mean they have access to the things that are going on in that community that would lead to mobility. You might actually move kids to an area where they feel more isolated, more cut off,” Collier said. “I think Matthews is going to have to grapple with it, Pineville is going to have to grapple with it, Davidson, every community. There are pockets of poverty across the county.”
Both Collier and Williams note that the keys to moving up in life appear to go beyond who your neighbors are and what job opportunities are in the area.
“It’s all going to boil down to whether a child feels like people care about them,” Collier said, “and not only do they care about them but that they’re willing to open up their networks and relationships.”
Will real people notice?
Beyond the realm of big donors, academics and policy wonks, will the people who live Charlotte’s struggle notice this new push?
Collier says he knows there’s a perception that the mobility report led mostly to more meetings and more reports, and that skeptics could see this as more of the same.
“When people tell me that nothing’s going on in the community, I do admit that a lot of the work that’s being done isn’t visible to the average person on the street,” he said. “But there are a thousand changes that are being made.”
The academic partnership isn’t designed to deliver direct benefits to residents, but to help pinpoint challenges and opportunities, craft solutions and measure whether they work. If that sounds vague, it’s because this is just getting started, Collier says.
“This is not coming out fully baked,” he said. “On Oct. 1 we do not know everything that’s going to happen. We don’t know all of the outcomes. We don’t even know exactly how to use all of this data.”
And real generational change can take decades.
But Collier feels a need to produce something concrete by 2020, when the success or failure of the American dream is bound to be a theme in coverage of the RNC in Charlotte.
“We have to show the country that if you act intentionally, using data to inform the decisions, you can change the life of a child,” he said.