Taylor Batten

One notch ahead of Baltimore

People line up outside Crisis Assistance Ministry last year.
People line up outside Crisis Assistance Ministry last year. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

New research out this week shows that Mecklenburg County is the worst big county in America for escaping from growing up poor – except one.

The only place worse? Baltimore City, where riots last week revealed the depth of desperation felt by low-income residents.

A pair of Harvard economists, Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, analyzed the earnings of millions of American families. They then ranked counties based on the effect living there has on a child’s income as an adult.

Of the 100 largest, Mecklenburg clocks in at 99th. That puts it below Chicago, Detroit, the Bronx, Atlanta and Los Angeles, among many others. Of the 2,478 counties analyzed, Mecklenburg ranks 2,408th.

Poor kids lose .69 percent in earnings for every year they live in Mecklenburg County. That means at age 26, people who grew up poor in Mecklenburg will, on average, have household income 14 percent lower than if they had grown up in the average U.S. county, and about 25 percent less than if they had grown up in the best county for income mobility (which is DuPage County, west of Chicago).

The news, sadly, is not entirely surprising. Chetty and Hendren in 2013 ranked Charlotte 50th out of 50 big cities for economic mobility, sparking a community task force and other efforts to address the problem. This study, however, may be even more disturbing.

Income segregation contributes

The 2013 report found correlations between cities and economic mobility. This week’s goes further, finding that living in Mecklenburg County, or moving there, actually causes poor children to fall further behind.

Chetty and Hendren studied more than 5 million anonymous tax records from families who moved from one county to another. They found that the destination caused the child to do better, or worse, as adults. The effect was more pronounced on younger siblings than older ones, because the younger ones were in the new place longer.

So a poor child who moves to Mecklenburg County is at a great disadvantage compared with one who moves to, say, Fairfax County, Virginia (the only county in a Southern state in the top 30 counties for mobility). And the longer she’s here, the worse off she is.

Studies have long demonstrated that kids from different neighborhoods or cities tend to have different outcomes. But Chetty’s and Hendren’s work is important because it suggests that the places themselves are contributing to the outcome; it’s not just that more or less successful people choose to congregate in a given place.

So what is it about Charlotte and Mecklenburg County that’s driving our miserable rankings?

The task force led by Ophelia Garmon-Brown and Dee O’Dell will dig into that. But Chetty and Hendren have named several factors nationally. They include segregation by income and race; the quality of schools; family structure such as two-parent households; income inequality; and social capital such as civic and religious groups.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have resegregated dramatically along racial and income lines in the past decade-plus. Those living in poverty are clustered in certain parts of the city, not dispersed.

To claw out from the bottom of the economic mobility rankings, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County should start by providing high-quality schools in all neighborhoods, not just wealthy ones. And they will have to take on the unpopular task of encouraging the development of affordable housing in mixed-income and higher-income parts of town.

Email: tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter: @tbatten1.

How the counties rank

A new Harvard study finds that poor children’s income as adults is directly affected by where they are raised:

Top counties (effects on income)

1. DuPage, Illinois15.1 percent

2. Snohomish, Washington14.4

3. Bergen, New Jersey14.1

4. Bucks, Pennsylvania13.3

5. Contra Costa, California12.1

6. Fairfax, Virginia12.1

7. King, Washington11.3

Bottom counties (effects on income)

94. Wayne, Mich.-12.5 percent

95. Fresno, Calif.-12.9

96. Cook, Illinois-13.3

97. Orange, Florida-13.5

98. Hillsborough, Florida-13.5

99. Mecklenburg, N.C.-13.8

100. Baltimore City-17.3