North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity

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Since its inception, the State of the South blog has examined patterns of economic mobility and educational progress across the region, looking at what demography and geography say about who is being successfully prepared for educational and economic success. In a new report commissioned by the John M. Belk Endowment, we applied this lens to the state of North Carolina—a state that prides itself on being a beacon: from creating the nation’s first public university and one of its earliest community college systems to pioneering the concept of research parks that bridge education and industry.

But as we’ve seen across the South, far too many people in the state are struggling to make ends meet. Even in the most economically dynamic metros like Charlotte and Raleigh, people who grow up in low-income families are more likely to stay there as adults than almost anywhere else in the nation, and only small numbers make it to the middle- or upper-income levels despite thriving labor markets that seem full of opportunity. For young people born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution in Charlotte, for example, 38 percent will stay there as adults, another 31 percent will only move up one quintile, and just 4 percent will make it to the highest quintile.

Other statistics in the report are equally troubling:

  • Upward mobility in 22 of North Carolina’s 24 regions called “commuting zones” ranks within the bottom quarter nationally—and Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro rank in the bottom 10 of the nation’s 100 largest commuting zones.
  • While mobility varies depending on where people live, only about one-third of children born into North Carolina families making less than $25,000 annually manage to climb into middle and upper income levels as adults.
  • Latinos and African Americans are more likely than whites to be in poverty and attain lower levels of education, leaving them less prepared for high-skill, well-paying jobs—and those disparities will increasingly affect North Carolina’s economy as these populations grow to make up a larger proportion of the population.
  • A family of one parent and one child needs an income of $21 an hour to cover basic living expenses in North Carolina, yet only 26 percent of full-time jobs pay median earnings of that amount.

While there is significant variation in mobility levels across North Carolina, no part of the state meets the national average. These mobility patterns, paired with the rapidly changing demographics of the workforce, have significant implications for North Carolina. Gov. Pat McCrory’s postsecondary goal is to ensure that by 2025, 67 percent of North Carolinians will have education and training beyond high school. And there’s good reason for a goal like that: while 31 percent of North Carolinians who attain only a high school degree live in poverty, just 5 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree do. In order to meet the 2025 goal and the competitive demands of a 21st century economy with a skilled workforce, we need to reduce disparate outcomes in education along racial and ethnic lines.

These are not issues for individuals alone, but for communities and states: If North Carolina’s business and industry is to thrive, it is imperative that the citizenry have the skills and training necessary to thrive, too. Since this progress has to happen for individuals where they are—in our rural towns and our metropolitan centers—we profiled eight communities across the state, looking for evidence of vision and practices that generate forward motion for individuals and communities. Within these communities, we saw everything from a rural, four-county region with an intertwined history and economy but limited access to living-wage work with career potential, to a city in one of North Carolina’s fastest growing counties with a diverse manufacturing sector and a growing Hispanic population—and just about everything in-between. We saw efforts that were inspiring in both aspiration and implementation. For example:

  • In Pitt County, educational institutions and economic development leaders are investing together to address needs of both the working population and industries, like the recent collaboration between Eastern Carolina University and Pitt Community College: the Biopharmaceutical Workforce Development and Manufacturing Center of Excellence. The center will link education and industry to ensure that residents looking to enter advanced manufacturing in health sciences are trained in the specific skills needed in Pitt County’s growing economy, attracting both workers and new industry.
  • Wilmington’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Youth Violence used an assessment of local food insecurity, school dropouts, and gang violence, as well as a scan of community resources and organizations, to guide their decisions about how and where to act. The Commission of leaders from the faith-based community, private businesses, local nonprofits, and elected officials is charged with coordinating resources, with a focus on youth ages 0–24 and their families. The analysis informed the creation of a Youth Enrichment Zone, a geographical area in the city where they target programmatic activity and investment.

(Read the full report for stories from Guilford County; Wilkes County; Fayetteville; Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties; Monroe; and Jackson, Macon, and Swain and the Qualla Boundary.)

The causes of economic immobility do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of systems that can both ease and impede individuals’ access to opportunities. Improved access can often give them more control over economic outcomes for their families and, in many cases, break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. This requires a strong infrastructure of opportunity—a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connects individuals to postsecondary credentials and economic opportunity regardless of background. The creation of that infrastructure of opportunity is beyond the reach of any single institution to create: discrete pockets of excellence are insufficient for changing the trajectory of broad opportunity and improving education and employment outcomes at scale. To move from discrete programming to an aligned infrastructure of opportunity requires:

  • adoption of a guiding framework for communities to assess and create an action plan that is grounded in a common vision of economic productivity and advancement for the community and its people
  • design and implementation of research-based policies and programs that can be scaled for an entire population, hold high expectations for educators, employers, and the workforce
  • maintaining momentum through continuous improvement
  • commitment to providing adequate resources that support the common vision.

“One key piece of the solution,” says MDC President David Dodson, “is that corporations and businesses need to play a bigger role in working with educators, government and community organizations to ensure we are developing the talent our advanced economy needs, and guiding students toward better paying jobs that are in demand and can elevate their quality of life.”