Taylor Batten

Is American dream still alive?

Shortly before Judge Frank Whitney sentenced former Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon to prison last week, he took note of Cannon’s extraordinary climb from humble beginnings.

Cannon was 5 years old when his father was murdered. He was raised by a single mother, at times in public housing. Yet he became a successful businessman, the youngest person ever elected to the Charlotte City Council and ultimately the city’s highest elected official.

“You took the right path as a young man,” Whitney told Cannon from the bench.

It was a path that went against the odds, even if it ultimately ended badly. Most successful people in Charlotte and the South were – like Judge Whitney – born into more fortunate circumstances. Those born into Cannon’s usually stay there for life – and nowhere more often than in Charlotte.

Researchers at Harvard and Cal-Berkeley, in a landmark study this year, showed that Charlotte ranks dead last of the country’s 50 biggest metro areas for income mobility. That is, kids who are born poor in Charlotte are more likely to stay poor than in any other big U.S. city. The prospects for escaping poverty here are lower than in any developed country.

Cannon was the exception that proved the rule. In fiscal year 2014, 780 different 16- and 17-year-olds were booked into the Mecklenburg County jail, many of them multiple times. The vast majority of these kids are poor, failing in school, and with little hope of finding a well-paying job, much less a career.

It’s a similar picture throughout the country, but especially the South. The Harvard/Berkeley study found income mobility consistently lower in the South than anywhere else. Of the 100 biggest metros, Charlotte ranked 98th, Columbia 97th, Greensboro 95th, Raleigh 94th, and most other Southern cities in the 80s and 90s. If you are born poor in the South, the American dream of moving up is just that – a dream.

It is into this milieu that MDC in Durham will release its next State of the South report on Tuesday. MDC is a nonprofit that, since being founded out of Terry Sanford’s North Carolina Fund in 1967, has been using research, advocacy and programs to fight poverty and expand opportunity in the South.

This report, the eighth in a series going back to 1996, makes an important and urgent call to create for 15- to 24-year-olds an “infrastructure of opportunity” – networks of programs aimed at giving young people the education and skills they need to get a well-paying job and pull themselves out of poverty.

The report points to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this year in which 77 percent of respondents said they were not confident that their children’s generation will be better off than theirs has been. With Washington and state capitals paralyzed by gridlock, local governments, businesses, foundations and others must partner to give young people the tools to prove those respondents wrong.

The remedies, MDC says, range from high-quality pre-K programs to training for laid-off workers to out-of-school programs to better aligning education and labor market demand.

Cities across the South are piloting efforts to help this population. Locally, Project LIFT and Ric Elias’ Golden Door Scholarship program are two. The challenge will be to scale the best ones to size.

The need is urgent. As MDC President David Dodson put it: “The price of failing to change the odds for youth and young adult success in the South is steep; the payoff rich for all of us.”

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