High school students piled out of a school bus while another student came out of his car in a suit. From my first few minutes on campus I could tell that Vance-Granville Community College was a place of eagerness. Inside the Civic Center was no different: leaders from Vance, Granville, Warren, Franklin, were all gathered and eager to continue making positive changes in their communities. These leaders represented nonprofit organizations, economic development, the K-12 public education system, higher education, and philanthropy with the ultimate goal of addressing the challenges of economic mobility in their respective counties. And thanks to the wonders of technology, we had a similar group from Nash County gathered to participate at Nash Community College. These counties are all part of the North Central Prosperity Zone (an NC Department of Commerce classification).

Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina. During a convening on October 17, we had the chance to see how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that upward economic mobility is particularly low in the South compared to other U.S. regions. Researchers looked at economic mobility in “commuting zones” (regional economies that share a labor force and sometimes cross county or state lines). The three commuting zones that encompass these counties are Wilson, Henderson, and Raleigh. Out of 729 zones they rank 13th, 23rd, and 85th, respectively, with #1 being the least mobile.

In the Henderson commuting zone (Vance and Warren counties), 38 percent of children born to parents in the bottom income quintile will stay there as adults. Only 26 percent will rise to the middle or upper middle income quintile; a meager 4 percent have a chance to make it to the highest income quintile. The figures are similar in the Wilson and Raleigh commuting zones.

Henderson Commuting Zone: Chances a child born in a given income quintile will move to another as an adult Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Henderson Commuting Zone: Chances a child born in a given income quintile will move to another as an adult
Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

In the face of these bleak data emerged that sense of eagerness I witnessed in the parking lot. Attendees reflected on the idea of the American Dream–and The Jefferson’s theme song–and how that could be a reality for their residents. Leaders were passionate in sharing both strengths and challenges their communities faced.

Community leaders were well-aware of all of the outstanding resources and programs that were helping residents move on up, including: a brand new performing arts center, a strong Chamber of Commerce, a committed community college, internship, CTE and STEM programs for high schoolers, and youth leadership for grades 8-10 that connects students with small business opportunities.

Equally important was their cognizance of forces that were impeding residents’ upward mobility such as limited industry participation, substance abuse, limited role models for youth, teens balancing work and school, higher standards for entry-level positions for higher paying jobs, and discrepancies in communication about opportunities available to different youth.

With the knowledge of what is working for and against their mobility odds, leaders put their minds together to engineer ways to build an 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). A theme revolving around youth, innovation, and inclusion quickly emerged. Leaders in these counties plan on strengthening STEM programs, advertising the “Vance Guarantee” and CTE to middle school students, emphasizing “trauma health” without shame, building on youth’s interest in technology, focusing on those furthest from opportunity, and learning from the past.

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. These counties are off to a good start!