After listening to experts, task force looks to community for poverty fixes

Ophelia Garmon-Brown, left, and Dee O’Dell
Ophelia Garmon-Brown, left, and Dee O’Dell

Since May, they’ve listened to experts about the causes of poverty and why Mecklenburg County is not a land of opportunity for all.

They have plunged into the latest research on the problem and brought in local speakers to explain everything from the development of a child’s brain to schools and neighborhoods that are segregated by race and economics.

Now, the 20-member Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force is taking its fact-finding mission on the road and wants to hear from you. On Tuesday, the group is launching a series of “listening tours” around the county as it searches for ways to remove barriers to upward mobility for thousands of poor residents.

The tour’s kick-off at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in the Druid Hills community is an effort to do what many have challenged the group to do – get close to families in some of Mecklenburg’s poorest communities.

The task force was triggered after a now familiar study by Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley found that poor children in Charlotte have the worst odds of those in any big city in America to lift themselves out of poverty.

The group is intentionally diverse, with high-profile Charlotte figures such as retired Springs Global CEO Crandall Bowles and construction company owner Ron Leeper; westside ministers Ricky Woods and Clifford Matthews and south Charlotte pastor David Chadwick.

They all knew their task was daunting, but most underestimated how much.

“I didn’t realize the complexity of this issue would be as great as it is,” said Charlotte physician Ophelia Garmon-Brown, the group’s co-chair with banker Dee O’Dell.

The group, Garmon-Brown said, will follow the data and “let it take us where it does.”

“We’re learning about the development of children through post-secondary schools,” she continued. “We have to think about housing and how segregated we are in Charlotte. We have to think about resources that people in poverty don’t have but desperately need. We have to think about single-parent families and look at how to mentor the child – and the parent – to break this cycle of generational poverty.

“There are no quick fixes. You can’t do five things and expect things will be better.”

Understanding causes

Charlotte’s ranking in the upward mobility study stunned city and county leaders – and grabbed their attention.

In his January 2014 state of the county address, Mecklenburg County commissioners Chair Trevor Fuller grieved over the county’s “intractable” poverty and promised that a task force would be assembled to find “actionable” remedies.

Fuller said he’d taken it for granted that Mecklenburg’s prosperity had been spread to all corners of the county.

But an examination by the Observer last year found that 1 in 4 residents lived in distressed neighborhoods in 2010, up from 1 in 10 in 2000. Those neighborhoods had at least 20 percent of residents living below the federally established poverty level – a yearly household income of $23,850 or less for a families of four.

The task force took months to assemble, but that gave the county time to forge a partnership with city leaders and the Foundation for the Carolinas and other organizations.

The group is now well into its discovery phase, which should be completed in February. It hopes to deliver a final report by October 2016.

“We felt that before we began to look for solutions, we had to learn all we could about the causes,” co-chair O’Dell said. “It takes a while for something like this to get moving. … We are working to understand the decades of patterns of systems and structures that have led our city and county to where we are today.”

Beyond no easy fixes, the group has learned that supports for opportunity must start early in a child’s life and that three types of capital are necessary: human, social and financial. A focus on single-parent families is crucial.

At each meeting, they’ve dug into research on upward mobility from institutions such as UNC Charlotte, the Pew Charitable Trust Upward Mobility Project, the Brookings Institution and the Aspen Institute.

They’ve heard from Richard Reeves, a Brookings expert on economic mobility. They’ve heard from civil rights lawyer James Ferguson and UNC Charlotte’s Amy Hawn Nelson on how Charlotte’s neighborhoods and many of its public schools are segregated.

They’ve heard about the importance of reading on grade level.

“We’ve gotten a good historical perspective about things like housing patterns and decisions made over the years that have left us with the outcome we have,” O’Dell said. “About what happens to the development of the brain when a child lives in poverty, when there is a lack of access to quality child care.

“Overall the performance of CMS is very good, but we have individual schools with a huge concentration of poverty.”

Not jumping to conclusions

Reeves, who consults with similar groups across the country, said he’s particularly impressed – but still skeptical – with the Charlotte task force and fascinated by the growing relationship between co-leaders Garmon-Brown and O’Dell.

“My heart sinks when a city announces a task force, because they usually undertake few tasks and have very little force,” he said. “It’s too early to tell, but I have to say so far it feels like this group in Charlotte might do something. They’re serious about the problems, and the members appear to be acting with integrity.

“And they’re politically endorsed, but not politically owned.”

Their effort, Reeves said, appears to be data-driven and “doesn’t rely on anecdotes.”

He advised the group to take its time and not jump to conclusions. “I told them to sit with the data and try to figure it out,” he said. “The task force does appear to be thinking and listening.”

Tuesday, they’ll begin to listen to residents – particularly those wanting to find better lives.

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061

Want to go?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force will kick off its “listening tour” Tuesday at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, 1600 Norris Ave., from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Events are free and open to the public with advance sign-up at opportunitycharmeck.org. Dinner and child care will be provided free of charge to those registered.