N.C. must address rampant economic insecurity

North Carolina towns can no longer rely on stand-by strategies to recruit new factories or companies.
North Carolina towns can no longer rely on stand-by strategies to recruit new factories or companies.

Of the many messages emerging from the recent elections, one theme stands out: unrest stemming from economic insecurity.

Across the country, our citizens are feeling extremely uneasy about their current and future economic prospects. This is true across geographic regions and demographic background, but it is felt strongest within communities in the lowest socio-economic strata.

Addressing economic mobility is going to be one of the greatest challenges facing our state and nation. To address this issue directly, the John M. Belk Endowment recently commissioned a report from Durham-based non-profit MDC.

According to the report, North Carolina has one of the country’s lowest economic mobility rates. Specifically, if you are born into the lowest income level in our state, it is very unlikely you will be able to earn your way into the middle class.

If you live in Charlotte, for example, and have a household income of less than $20,000 (which puts you in the lowest economic quintile in the state), there is a 4 percent chance your children will be able to ascend to the highest quintile of $93,419 or more. You have about a 25 percent chance of getting to the middle quintile of $36,000 to $58,000. By contrast, there is a 40 percent chance of staying in your same quintile.

In short, for the majority of our state, your financial status when you are born often dictates where you will stay. Even more troubling: 60 percent of our citizens are barely making ends meet, according to minimum household income standards. No wonder there is discontent.

To get out of this mess, we need to connect more people to stable employment with livable wages. This requires education-to-career pathways that are rigorous, coherent, and well aligned to the shifting landscape of our future economy.

To establish this system in our state, the MDC report recommends three steps for communities: 1) creation and adoption of a guiding framework and common vision of inclusive economic productivity and advancement; 2) design and implementation of a data-driven approach that realizes this vision through action that engages educators, employers, and the workforce and stresses rigorous evaluation; and 3) a commitment of resources necessary to achieve this vision.

While easy to describe, this approach is much harder to execute. Globalization, automation and the subsequent demand for a higher skilled workforce mean our emerging workforce needs more training for fewer jobs. At one point, North Carolina had the most manufacturing jobs in the country. Now, communities can no longer rely on stand-by strategies to recruit new factories or companies to their town – especially if you are in a smaller city or rural area.

Part of this puzzle is addressed by helping communities foster more entrepreneurial activity and small business growth across all socio-economic and demographic strata. Done well, this can produce more opportunities for income generation and job creation.

Another strategy is to create stronger inroads into existing employers and ensuring the workforce (emerging, transitioning and displaced) is prepared to succeed in these jobs. This requires that our K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities work in lock-step with employers to create a seamless pipeline, so that our communities are considered by employers as talent developers.

Christopher Gergen is a Duke University fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofitCenter for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at