The 2 first steps we're taking on economic mobility

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown and others unveiled an Opportunity Task Force report in March 2017. Now Stephanie Cooper-Lewter plans to help implement its recommendations.
Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown and others unveiled an Opportunity Task Force report in March 2017. Now Stephanie Cooper-Lewter plans to help implement its recommendations. Observer file photo

It’s time for Charlotte to address ranking last among the nation’s largest cities in upward mobility. The infamous statistic — 50 out of 50 — has come to define us as powerfully as the cranes dotting our skyline.

If you are born poor in Charlotte, supportive pathways to upward mobility are often nowhere to be found. Transforming the odds to improving mobility requires a systems approach and years of work. But we have the opportunity now to seize the moment to mobilize in support of two initiatives aligned with the Opportunity Task Force Report that can help us change our course, and the lives of our neighbors.

As Charlotte’s affordable housing crisis worsens, Mayor Vi Lyles proposes seeking voter approval for $50 million in affordable housing bonds come November. The latest study commissioned by the city found that Charlotte lacks 21,195 rental units for low-income households, and that our “booming” city is home to 52,411 housing-insecure households. A short walk from Eastover and Myers Park reveals many of our neighbors' struggles to provide their children a decent place to live. Studies have found that family stress is the greatest barrier to a child’s success in school. What could be more stressful than living with the fear of homelessness?

While multiple strategies are needed to attack our affordable housing shortage, strengthening the City’s Housing Trust Fund, which subsidizes construction of housing for low-income renters by private developers, is time sensitive and will reap powerful rewards. So will convincing the private sector — developers and investors — to appreciate that building more affordable housing benefits us all. Progress can’t be measured only by building more posh apartment complexes. It’s building more housing for everyone.

Access to affordable housing, coupled with quality early learning opportunities can significantly increase opportunity for the next generation. Mecklenburg’s Board of County Commissioners has raised the bold idea of establishing voluntary universal pre-K for all Mecklenburg children. Universal pre-K benefits all, and the county’s families experiencing poverty would benefit from a sliding fee scale. A Duke University study found that children enrolled in N.C. early childhood programs showed academic gains lasting through fifth grade. They were held back less frequently and were less likely to be placed in special education as they grew up. Universal pre-K isn’t inexpensive, but it will transform lives. Begin nurturing a child as soon as possible, and the door to a better life opens for all, regardless of race, income, gender, ethnicity, background or zip code.

We strive to make Charlotte-Mecklenburg a place where all children can achieve their biggest, boldest dreams. If you want to make that happen, join us in supporting these two efforts. Contact your city and county representatives and urge them to do what’s in the best interest of all. Share your support on social media. Encourage those in your network — civic organizations, houses of worship, businesses, neighborhood associations, friends and family — to do the same to build opportunity for all.

Leading on Opportunity arose from a study on Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s lack of social and economic mobility. Our focus is on early childhood education, college and career readiness, and family stability with attention to the cross-cutting factors of segregation and social capital. Already we are making a mark with community alignment and support. Read Charlotte launched its #CommitTo80 campaign to build momentum around the goal of having 80 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025. And Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, inspired by the Opportunity Task Force Report, is considering the report’s findings in its strategic planning and budgeting, and examining if some of its property can be used for affordable housing.

I came to Charlotte three months ago from Columbia wondering if I would find a community ready to work, hungry to take action, determined not to be derailed in tackling the opportunity challenge ahead of us, together, for the long haul. Based upon these early two statements by the city and county, and other community efforts, I wonder no more.

Stephanie Cooper-Lewter is executive director of Leading on Opportunity. Email: