Mecklenburg’s poverty task force likely to begin work in February

The task force charged with finding solutions to overcoming poverty in Mecklenburg County will go even deeper than the academic study that surprised leaders and spurred the group’s need, its co-chair said Wednesday.

U.S. Bank executive Dee O’Dell, who is chairing the task force with physician and Novant Health executive Ophelia Garmon-Brown, said the task force will take a three-phase approach to study the problem.

Choosing the 16 to 20 diverse members – including people who lifted themselves out of poverty – has been more difficult than the co-chairs first thought. O’Dell said they’ve begun “thinking more broadly” about the group’s makeup after many discussions, and its work won’t likely begin until February.

The task force will take most of 2015 to collect Mecklenburg-relevant data, understand the economic gaps that exist here and establish the most “impactful solutions,” he said.

The need for a task force was first broached by Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller, who in his “state of the county” address last January spoke of the county’s “intractable poverty” and promised an in-depth study to find workable solutions.

His call for the task force was a reaction to a study by Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley showing that upward mobility for children in poverty is more difficult in Charlotte than any of the country’s 50 largest cities.

That statistic surprised Fuller and others who thought most residents were sharing in Mecklenburg’s prosperity.

The group’s first phase will be collecting data that provide an honest picture of poverty in Charlotte, using findings from the Harvard-Berkeley study. “We want to look at information specific to Charlotte and Mecklenburg County,” O’Dell said. “The study dealt with the bottom 20 percent. We want to really understand if those people are primarily long-term residents or a group that constantly turns over.”

The second phase will be for members to find a consensus on the gaps and issues that create economic disparity in Mecklenburg, and phase three will be to agree on solutions that city and county can fit to policy.

O’Dell said that he and Garmon-Brown have met multiple times since the task force concept was formally announced in late November. They had hoped to have named task force members by now, but their intention of creating a group that spreads across “every lens of diversity” has been slow.

“We have been very deliberate to think about who is on this task force,” he said. “We want to make sure that it is very representative of the community.”

He said the group will take the same approach to find solutions.

“We owe it to ourselves and to this community to dig in and understand the data in a very thoughtful manner and to make sure that whatever we come out with is not just based on anecdotes – but based on the issues and needs for that segment of our population,” O’Dell said.