“Either we own the issue or the outcome:” Economic Mobility in Western NC

“Because it mattered to me and my family.”

“Because people matter.”

“Because the alternative is stagnation.”

“Because kids deserve to have their dreams within reach.”

These are just some of the responses we got when we asked a room of leaders in Swain, Jackson, Macon counties and the Qualla Boundary to complete the phrase, “Mobility matters in Western North Carolina because … .” Representatives from higher education, the K-12 system, economic development, and philanthropy came together two weeks ago for a work session on increasing the odds for upward mobility in the region.

Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina and how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that intergenerational poverty is particularly dire in the South compared to other U.S. regions.

We wanted to look at the nuanced ways that our home state of North Carolina, a state grounded in Southern geography, history, and identity, reflects the patterns of “stickiness” illuminated by the Equality of Opportunity Project. Researchers looked at economic mobility in “commuting zones” (regional economies that share a labor force and sometimes cross county or state lines). In the commuting zones that encompass Swain, Jackson, and Macon Counties, one third of children born into the lowest income quintile will remain in the bottom as adults. An additional half will rise only to the second-lowest or middle income quintiles, leaving only one-fifth of low-income children rising to the upper or upper-middle quintiles as adults. And these counties fare better in terms of economic mobility compared to their in-state neighbors: 19 of 24 commuting zones in North Carolina have worse mobility odds than these Western counties.

Mobility Data, Franklin County, NC

What are the chances a child raised in a given quintile of the income distribution will move to another quintile as an adult in the Franklin area?

 Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Mobility Data, Sylva County, NC

What are the chances a child raised in a given quintile of the income distribution will move to another quintile as an adult in the Sylva area?

Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Yet on August 31st, in a room at Western Carolina University, people well aware of the challenges facing the region were not filled with a sense of defeat. Rather, there was a sense of urgency and a charge set forth by the university’s chancellor, David Belcher: “Those of us in the room are the privileged, but we’re also the leaders. It’s time we broke from our old ways of working, because either we own the issue or we own the outcome.”

Participants affirmed the chancellor’s charge by contributing their own perspectives on the local forces both supporting and impeding equitable mobility in the region. The group named some familiar challenges in the Western part of the state: a geography that draws tourists, but also makes it difficult to draw large employers and to provide affordable housing, transportation, and broadband solutions to improve access to resources. But the region has its strengths as well: solid entrepreneurial programs at the university and community college; a strong sense of regional care and collaboration; and a cultural tradition that values education and helps residents form social connections.

By thinking through the forces working both for and against increasing the mobility odds in the three-county region, leaders found themselves thinking through creative ways to strengthen their community’s infrastructure of opportunity, or the systemic factors that can be aligned to work more effectively in favor of expanding education and living-wage prospects for residents. The group of 50 participants discussed the need for increased private investment in the area; the promise of starting college and workforce preparation even earlier than high school, so even middle school students can set aspirational goals that will, in turn, contribute to local economic growth; and the urgency of including more partners—even across state lines—in a conversation about expanding broadband access, so that those living within the counties can enjoy the benefits of technology, and those working inside the counties’ lines can afford to call it home.

Creating an infrastructure of opportunity is made possible when communities collectively digest data, understand the challenge, engage in dialogue about the set of conditions working for and against their shared goals for mobility, and respond accordingly and collaboratively. Thank you, Swain, Macon, and Jackson counties and the Qualla Boundary, for joining us in a conversation about economic mobility in the western part of the state. Up next: Vance, Granville, Warren, Franklin, and Nash counties! Stay tuned.