How Charlotte can go from worst to first

The Observer editorial board

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown discusses the task force report Monday.
Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown discusses the task force report Monday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte’s shelves are stuffed with well-intentioned studies, committee reports and task force recommendations – all gathering dust. So naturally our biggest concern as we headed to Monday’s unveiling of the Opportunity Task Force’s report, two years in the making, was that Charlotte would need to find more room on the shelf.

But then something surprising happened: A long line, including former Bank of America chief Hugh McColl and other luminaries, stretched out of the Government Center. The meeting chamber was packed with hundreds of people, including many of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s most influential leaders. The room buzzed.

That intense interest and level of commitment is a promising sign that maybe, just maybe, Monday’s discussion about improving our city’s economic mobility will prove to be a signal moment in Charlotte history and not just more good intentions that wither into paralysis, overtaken by distractions or indifference. As leaders of the effort emphasized, the task force’s recommendations are merely a beginning. All that truly matters is whether they are energetically pursued and, ultimately, change lives. That question remains, but Monday was as powerful a kickoff as one could hope for.

Charlotte takes great pride for the accolades it wins as a desirable place to live. But those accolades long masked great divides. They were masked so well that many people weren’t aware of them, and even city leaders were shocked when a Harvard-Cal Berkeley study in 2014 named Charlotte 50th out of 50 big cities for economic mobility. If you are born poor, you have a worse chance of escaping that poverty growing up in Charlotte than any other sizable city in America.

“How could this be?” Trevor Fuller, then the county commissioners chairman, remembered thinking.

It could be because the Harvard/Cal researchers found five factors most correlated with economic mobility: segregation, income inequality, school quality, social capital and family structure. Charlotte ranked poorly on all five.

It was a slap to the face, but Charlotte leaders, to their credit, responded. After two long years, the task force emerged with 21 strategies and 91 recommendations. The proposals aim to tackle those five determinative factors. They range from reducing segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to providing high-quality care and education to all young children; from on-the-job training for high school students to encouraging more two-parent families.

Some recommendations are obvious, others are controversial, others are expensive. But there’s no need to quibble over any one of them. As a group, they are neither Democratic nor Republican. They are designed to offer a hand up, not a handout; they emphasize equality of opportunity, not incomes.

The danger now is that addressing this fundamental problem is everybody’s job, which too often means it becomes no one’s job. Thankfully, Bank of America executive Andrea Smith and former N.C. teacher of the year James Ford have agreed to co-chair an effort to implement the recommendations.

So the pressure is on them. But it is still on all of us, for the ultimate measure of a person – or a community – is how they treat “the least of these.”