Ambitious panel faces tall task

Charlotte has too much intellectual firepower, too strong a work ethic, too much heart and too much pride to be ranked dead-last nationally on any economic measure.

So when researchers at Harvard and Cal-Berkeley reported last year that Charlotte ranks 50th out of the country’s 50 biggest cities for economic mobility, it sent ripples through the city’s leadership.

Mecklenburg commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller quickly announced in his State of the County address in January his plans to create a task force to tackle poverty. Today, many months after Fuller expected it to happen, Charlotte leaders will unveil an ambitious plan: A group of about 16 will spend a year diving deeply into how to give Charlotte’s poor a shot to improve their lot in life, then will produce a slate of specific recommendations.

The delay since Fuller’s January announcement was valuable. Organizers have given the effort more thought and more credibility by enlisting key players such as Michael Marsicano and his Foundation for the Carolinas as well as task force co-chairs Ophelia Garmon-Brown and Dee O’Dell. They also have the full support of County Manager Dena Diorio and Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter, who told the editorial board months ago that he’s losing sleep over the lack of economic mobility and opportunity for Charlotte’s poorer residents.

The Harvard-Berkeley study found that if you grow up poor in Charlotte, you are very likely to remain poor. Those in the lowest income quintile here climb to higher quintiles less frequently than those in any other large city in America.

Charlotte’s task force should focus on economic opportunity at least as much as mobility. There will always be a bottom quintile. So moving people up from one quintile to another necessarily means others are falling from one to another. Mobility is important, but economic opportunity raises all boats.

The Harvard study found that a community’s economic mobility largely correlates with five pillars: segregation; income inequality; the quality of schools; the level of social capital; and family structure. It follows that Charlotte didn’t score well, given the extent of our segregation, the income chasms among our neighborhoods and the varying quality of our public schools.

We are hopeful this task force will make a true dent in the problem. It needs not to throw money at it or just streamline existing services for the poor but to craft ways to fundamentally change the early years of a poor child’s life and to provide more job opportunities when that child reaches adulthood.

The world’s bookshelves are straining under the weight of well-meaning studies that led to little action. To succeed, this task force will need to have the “very tough conversations” that Fuller warns it must.