What poverty looks like in Charlotte

A homeless woman on North Tryon last year.
A homeless woman on North Tryon last year. File photo

My colleagues and I – in partnership with friends at Crisis Assistance Ministry – have, for some months, been studying poverty and economic hardship in Charlotte. I know that seems odd. The Queen City is, on an array of fronts, an economic powerhouse.

Charlotte is America’s 17th largest city, one of the country’s fastest growing. It is home to 10 percent of North Carolina’s people, but produces 30 percent of its GDP. Over 25 percent of Charlotte households make at least $100,000 a year, a much higher ratio than the state’s.

But, as most Charlotteans know, the city’s ample prosperity has often, of late, been said to be inadequately shared. Stanford Professor Raj Chetty identified intense economic mobility challenges. The Urban Institute documented shortages of affordable housing. The Brookings Institute noted trends of economic exclusion and concentrated poverty. It is fair to say these embarrassing negative markers spiked the city’s attention.

We’ve attempted, therefore, a somewhat deeper and more particularized dive into Charlotte’s economic polarization. We’ve explored a good deal of demographic data. Perhaps more tellingly, we’ve also done extensive interviews with low-income residents through Crisis Assistance – hoping to help put a face on the city’s “working poverty.” The results have been eye-opening.

Charlotte’s impressive income figures mask notable racial disparities. Seventy percent of black households make less than $60,000 a year, while almost 60 percent of white ones make more than that. The median income for white families is 86 percent higher than for black and Hispanic ones.

Poverty appears at surprising and disparate levels. It has almost doubled since 2000 (from 10 to 18 percent), one of the sharpest increases in the nation. Roughly three times as many African-Americans and Hispanics live in wrenching poverty as whites. For kids, it’s worse. A quarter of Charlotte children are poor – 5 percent of white kids, 36 percent of blacks, 39 percent of Hispanics.

Jaw-dropping as the poverty figures are, Charlotte’s trends toward concentrated poverty may be even more worrisome. In high-poverty neighborhoods, the poor must cope not only with the challenges of their own deprivation, but also with those of their neighbors. Dangerous streets, substandard housing, challenged schools, sparse transportation, isolation from commercial opportunities and services – the list is long.

In 2000, 19 percent of Charlotte census tracts were deemed high poverty (over 20 percent of residents poor). By 2014, 34 percent of tracts were – again, one of the country’s steepest increases. Seventy of the 79 high poverty tracts are majority-minority. Four of North Carolina’s 10 most severely distressed neighborhoods are in Charlotte.

Charlotte’s economic polarization is also increasingly entrenched by highly stratified patterns of employment and compensation. Over the past decade, large percentages of middle income jobs have been lost. Almost 85 percent of job gains, on the other hand, have been either low wage (under $36,000) or high wage (over $82,000). And salaries for the low wage positions have often proven to be either stagnant or falling.

Intense pockets of distress present a distinct moral issue in North Carolina’s wealthiest city. A metropolis of commercial genius becomes, or maintains, a potent landscape of economic apartheid. Stunning numbers are locked out, denied meaningful prospects, as they serve others who prosper.

As Melissa, from Crisis Assistance, explained:

“I don’t mind hard work. Done it all my life. But I also want to have a life – a chance to advance. I’m tired of living below mediocre, always the worst of everything. Where we live, the schools our kids go to, the very bottom of the barrel. Why is it always a desperate fight?”

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC Chapel Hill.