Local & State Voices

A Charlotte path that Raleigh should follow

As a proud Raleigh native and lifelong Triangle booster, I bow to no one in my indifference toward Charlotte. The Queen City has always seemed more like a highway rest stop that got out of hand, less of a municipality than an IKEA outpost. Sure, it’s a global banking center and the home of NASCAR. But people there think “downtown” is spelled “uptown,” and that’s just silly.

So please know how much it pains me to say this: we have a lot to learn from Charlotteans, at least when it comes to public policy.

Back in 2014, when the Harvard economist Raj Chetty unveiled his remarkable project on economic mobility in the United States, North Carolina’s largest city ranked dead last among the fifty biggest metro areas in the country. Chetty’s data found that a child born in poverty in Charlotte is extraordinarily likely to stay poor into adulthood, with far fewer chances for advancement than a child born in Salt Lake City or San Jose.

“It called into question everything we’d been doing,” said Brian Collier, vice president at the Charlotte-based Foundation for the Carolinas, said during this month’s Emerging Issues Forum in Charlotte. “Is philanthropy having the impact we like to tell ourselves it is?”

It would have been easy for city officials and business leaders to brush off the Chetty data. National quality-of-life rankings and booming growth suggest Charlotte is doing just fine, at least for residents with a solid education and access to good jobs.

But instead of ignoring the mobility findings or responding defensively, Charlotte embraced the challenge. Collier and his colleagues launched a years-long effort called Leading on Opportunity, pulling together city and county government, nonprofits, churches and businesses big and small to figure out what keeps the American Dream out of reach for low-income residents. They called in UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute to analyze data and tackle research problems — everything from preschool access to neighborhood segregation to corporate hiring practices.

They also welcomed Chetty’s data-crunchers into the mix, turning what could have been a uniformly negative story about Charlotte’s deficits into a more hopeful, more substantive example of Charlotte’s willingness to work for change. A major article on economic opportunity in the August issue of The Atlantic featured a neighborhood ride-along with Collier and a discussion of Charlotte’s shared work.

Economic mobility is also good politics, a unifying issue because it implicates everyone. Instead of calling out public schools, blaming the criminal justice system, or attacking business practices, Leading on Opportunity gathered all the big players for problems that cross all the usual silos. No one expects a turnaround by the next fiscal year, the next grant cycle, or the next election.

Charlotte has already made new investments in housing and is mapping plans for dealing with transit issues, but that’s only the beginning. “This takes a while to penetrate,” Collier said. “This is generational work.”

Which is why cities other than Charlotte need to get moving. The Queen City may have ranked dead last, at No. 50, but the City of Oaks didn’t exactly earn bragging rights. Raleigh clocked in as 48th worst in the country for economic mobility, statistically indistinguishable from our Mecklenburg cousins. Yet there’s been no comparable mobilization of civic leaders here, no all-hands-on-deck effort to figure out why poor children stay poor and what we can do about it.

The national map of Chetty’s data is haunting. In one sweeping dataset, you can plainly see how the country’s ugly history shapes its modern landscape.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Charlotte is meeting its test with open-minded energy. I hope the Triangle can manage more than a shrug.

Contributing columnist Eric Johnson lives in Chapel Hill and was born in Raleigh.