In an article last weekend for the Washington Post, Chico Harlan describes the difficulties facing young people growing up in some of the nation’s lowest wealth communities. “The Deep South’s paralyzing intergenerational poverty is the devastating sum of problems both historical and emergent — ones that, in the life of a young man, can build in childhood and then erupt in early adulthood,” says Harlan. These young people “deal with traumas at home and dysfunction at school — only to find themselves, as graduates, searching for low-paying jobs in states that have been reluctant to fund programs that help the poor.” An accompanying infographic, which maps life expectancy, children living with one parent, unbanked households, median household income, and income mobility, poses a solemn question:
What went wrong is centuries of enslavement and systemic discrimination that resulted in the immense disparities we see today—but most news stories don’t capture that context. What went wrong with the Deep South is, in many ways, what went wrong with America. In the South, the effects of our nation’s enduring racism are most apparent, and it’s hard to overstate the continued legacy of slavery. The American economy was built on the wealth created by a violent system of free labor. The economic motivation for that system was most apparent in the agricultural South, and so people in this region went to increasingly great lengths over time to preserve it in spite of contradictions with American ideals of equality. The narrative of racial difference that was created to justify that system is still with us.
Our region’s history of economic dependence on free, forced labor, and then later on cheap, exploitative labor, meant there were minimal opportunities for wealth creation for those outside the economic elite, and particularly for people of color, and there has been unequal investment in community resources that are beneficial to the entire population, like schools, transportation, and healthcare. Centuries of slavery ended only to usher in an era of racial terrorism and legal segregation. With restricted economic opportunity and nonexistent political power, black Southerners had limited capacity to invest in community institutions like schools to ensure their children received quality education (although there are many notable exceptions). Even as the policies and systems that overtly and legally segregated communities were dismantled, the emergence of new ways of drawing lines has concentrated affluence in some places and poverty in others. These policies and behaviors are often developed without consciously racist intentions, but they have served to reinforce the importance of place in determining opportunity.
So, what went wrong in the South? A long history of social and economic inequity, which is most apparent in the places that pop out on the Washington Post’s interactive map. The historical roots of this swath of concentrated poverty and low mobility can easily be traced back to the 17th century (or even to the Cretaceous era, as the places with the largest populations of enslaved people were where the soil was the best for growing cotton, which follows the pattern of ancient coastlines). In 1860, 78 percent of people in Sunflower County, MS, the setting of Harlan’s article, were enslaved. A map showing the percentage of the total population that was enslaved in 1860 by county bears remarkable similarity to the pattern of those Washington Post maps:
Slavery, and the racist beliefs that were constructed to support slavery’s endurance until the Emancipation Proclamation, was not an inevitable economic system. And, even though we understand its roots, the structural racism and segregation that followed were not inescapable. When we understand the history of racism in the U.S.—how the design of our economy and our policies created these current conditions, rather than seeing them as accidents of fate or unknowable mysteries—then we understand that poverty, a lack of opportunity, and inequality are not intractable. Because we do not know that history, we are perplexed by the situation we have found ourselves in (“What went wrong in the South? No one really knows!”).
We need to stop reacting to dramatic regional or group differences in outcomes as baffling idiosyncrasies and start digging into them for information about how well our society as a whole is functioning. We should focus our efforts on the people and communities that appear to be outliers, because those are the places where the failures of our system are most apparent, according to Rosanne Haggerty. “What would work for those outliers is actually something that would work for anyone,” says Haggerty. A community’s Infrastructure of Opportunity must be designed to provide reliable options for all young people, regardless of family wealth and background. The places that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people also tend to have better outcomes for high-income young people, too (see Equality of Opportunity Project), indicating that the types of resources, systems, and investments that matter for the economic and educational success of young people are beneficial across the board.
Breakdowns in educational and economic opportunity like those Harlan describes in the Deep South may appear unique to a small number of communities, but they are indicative of broader systemic failures. Harlan mostly focuses on the issues facing economically isolated rural communities, but the accompanying map of low mobility shows that low-income young people are struggling even in some of the South’s most prosperous and dynamic metros. If we want to make national progress on equity, opportunity, and mobility, then we have to figure out how to reduce disparities in the South and in those communities where economic insecurity is greatest. The Infrastructure of Opportunity varies noticeably in quality, consistency, and accessibility across the U.S.; that doesn’t have to continue to be the case.
At the end of October, teams from four Southern cities–Athens, Ga., Chattanooga, Tenn., Greenville, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.–came to Durham to form the Network for Southern Economic Mobility. As individuals and in community teams, they will help their cities take on the challenge of improving the economic mobility of youth and young adults who are furthest from educational opportunity and economic security. The focus is young people in the lowest income brackets, a vulnerable population often stuck in inter-generational poverty. These youth and young adults are our present and future students, parents, workers, voters, and leaders. Improving prospects for them improves prospects for our prosperity as a region and nation.
“We can’t have a society where only exceptions succeed or where so much is left to the luck of the draw—especially when the deck is so often stacked against those who need the uplift of mobility the most,” said David Dodson, president of MDC. “We must be about changing the odds, not expecting people to beat the odds.”
The cities were chosen for the Network, Dodson said, because they have shown a commitment to helping marginalized young people, a foundation of promising programs on which to build, the presence of industries with career potential for young people, and top leaders who see the connection between economic mobility and the long-term health of their economy.
The four cities have committed to participate for at least two years, and a second cohort is expected to be selected in 2017. Participants are leaders from each community in business, government, education, nonprofits, and philanthropy. They are examining how well their existing systems are reaching those young people facing the most difficult barriers to advancement; analyzing the policies, systems, and culture that impede their progression; and then adapting or building the pathways that connect institutions and social supports, from school to rewarding employment. Communities also will learn how others are implementing structural reforms in the Southern economic and political context.
As part of the network, cities will receive customized coaching and technical assistance, hear from experts in institutional and governmental systems change, and have the opportunity to work together and share their insights into what works—and what doesn’t—as they strive to eliminate the barriers that keep a high percentage of low-income young people from rising into the middle class.
At the end of two years, Network members will be expected to have:
- detailed systems and data analyses of those youth in the lowest income brackets and a clear understanding of the principal barriers to their economic mobility
- a leadership group equipped to challenge institutional inequities and implement an action plan that fosters a system that serves the needs of both young people and employers that accelerates youth mobility efforts
- a set of priorities to build stronger organizations with the culture, skills, and management capacity to refine existing programs, aggregate and realign resources, and spur innovation
- a cross-region peer group of leaders working together on a cutting edge issue of national significance
Core support for the Network is provided by The Kresge Foundation, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, and other philanthropic investors. Communities are contributing a participation fee to support a portion of on-site technical assistance, coaching visits, and annual conferences. The network also is drawing on the expertise of senior staff at The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Participants realize there are no silver bullets, and the challenges and opportunities are different in every city:
- In Athens and the surrounding counties, the poverty rate is 38 percent, more than double the state average. To address that, the city schools and Athens Technical College have created a partnership with a community career academy to develop dual-enrollment courses and encourage more low-income students to go to college.
- In Chattanooga, only 7 percent of students who graduate from two high schools with large, low-income populations, go on to complete any college program within six years. The Benwood Foundation is working with the school system and the Public Education Foundation to increase graduation rates by improving teaching and offering intensive literacy support in those and other predominantly low-income high schools.
- In Greenville, a significant problem is its limited bus system, making it hard for low-income residents to get to school and work. On the plus side, Greenville Technical College works closely with major employers to provide services through industry meetings, sales meetings with business and industry, and partnerships within the community.
- In Jacksonville, only 38 percent of working-age adults have a two- or four-year degree. The city has responded with programs to focus on identifying and responding to the needs of potential high school drop-outs, and has raised the graduation rate from 60 percent to 77percent in the last eight years.
Their leaders recognize there is much work to be done to create a comprehensive infrastructure of opportunity so that the success of isolated efforts leads to integrated ones that produce pervasive, positive outcomes for all young people. Improved outcomes depend on affirming leadership, culture, and systems. As leaders act to close the gap between current reality and the desired future, they can shape culture, the community habits, attitudes, and values that influence the appetite for improvement and shape individual and system behavior. Since every system is perfectly designed to get the results it produces, that intersection of individual and organizational behavior is key—organizations are made up of individuals, after all.
Since systems are perfectly designed, we have to think outside those systems and apply a new logic to build systems that work differently and, therefore, get different results. In his piece, Divided No More (required reading for the Network!), Parker Palmer explores what individuals can do to make new structures and ways of working that create new organizations and systems. It begins with internal commitments to a new approach that leads people to “discover each other and enter into relations of mutual encouragement and support.” As a learning network, the aim of the Network for Southern Economic Mobility is to facilitate these connections within the participating communities and across all four cities. A central principle of learning together is providing a place where individuals can share troubling data, process frustrating experiences, and air grievances—not simply for reflection or validation, but to, as Palmer says, “enter one’s convictions into the mix of communal discourse…. to project one’s ideas so that others can hear them, respond to them, and be influenced by them … so that one’s ideas can be tested and refined in the public crucible.”
During last month’s Network convening, two Durham practitioners attested to the importance of this kind of refinement. In a panel discussion about approaching systems change, Andrea Harris, founder and former executive director of the Institute and Tom Jaynes, Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Support at Durham Technical Community College, shared their hard-won insights on working inside and outside of systems and institutions to improve educational access and economic security for those furthest from opportunity.
Harris emphasized the importance of personal conviction and collaborative effort: “Be true to yourself and also know that you don’t change anything alone.” Jaynes shared a lesson from the community college: the importance of evaluating a system from a student’s perspective because “what you think is happening, isn’t happening… and until you know how the system performs, you can’t know what needs to change.”
To find out what’s actually happening, communities that want to improve upward economic mobility for young people must examine how well existing systems are reaching those young people who face the most difficult barriers to advancement; analyze the policies, systems, and culture that impede their progression; and adapt or build the pathways that connect institutions and social supports, from school to rewarding employment. Cities in the Network for Southern Economic Mobility are set to take on this challenge, in the region where economic mobility is most constrained. As Lemuel LaRoche, a member of the Athens team and executive director of Chess and Community, said, “We have all the pieces we need to fix ourselves, but do we have the will? Is that old system going to move out of the way?” It’s a question the entire region must answer.
“Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”
This is the slogan that proudly faces passersby on MDC’s front window on Main Street in Durham. I’ve seen pedestrians stop in front of MDC’s windows, visibly pondering the meaning of the above statement. This sentiment undergirds our work; despite tried and true examples of trickle-up gain resulting from initially targeted policies, the idea that “society benefits when everyone succeeds” can seem abstract at best and untrue at worst. A scarcity mentality tempts us to dismiss collective benefit and cling to the belief that for one group to succeed, to matter, and to be recognized means that another group loses something. So what does MDC’s mantra, the antithesis of scarcity, really mean, and how do we know it’s true?
This past Sunday night, a 98-year-old African-American woman appeared on stage at one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies our nation celebrates. She was greeted by a standing ovation as the crowd of stars gathered for the 89th Academy Awards cheered her legacy, the inspiration for one of the year’s highest grossing films. But Katherine Johnson’s achievements are far more profound than the narrative of a blockbuster. Looking out at a sea of glamor and elitism, Katherine Johnson proudly exemplified why success and opportunity are not a zero-sum game.
Her story, as many have come to know it, is portrayed in the recent film Hidden Figures, adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s true account of four black women who played a key role in 1960s Space Race through their work at NASA. Though the film collapses the historical timeline and creates composite characters, the film has been acclaimed as an impressively accurate account of the struggles and triumphs of black female mathematicians relegated to backstage yet critical work at NASA. The film follows the work of Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson) at the height of the nation’s anxiety over Russian advances in space—and the U.S.’s lagging pace. In a time of looming threat from a foreign power, U.S. residents across region and identity had a vested interest in putting all hands and minds on deck to maximize talent and progress. But Jim Crow laws in Virginia, where NASA was working to send the first American into orbit, stubbornly and systemically inhibited equal inclusion of all American talent. Though Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson had the skill, intellect, and passion needed to make a difference in America’s voyage to space, the narrative of white and male superiority is clear and biting: “We don’t need your talent. We can go farther without you.”
Except: yes, they do, and no, they can’t.
Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson, who start out in the film as human “computers” in the all-black West campus of NASA know the worth and necessity of their talent, and choose to persist against unjust obstacles to make their vital contributions. (Their stories are examples of personal heroism that, as we’ve discussed here on the State of the South blog, can come at a high cost and ought not to be placed on individuals to begin with.)
Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson attending engineering courses at an all-white school. Source: https://www.theaterbyte.com/tb_env_gly_/hidden-figures-2016
Mary Jackson notices a defect of the heat shield surrounding the capsule that will carry John Glenn into space. But without the credentials offered by the whites-only school in Hampton, V.A., Jackson is barred from contributing her talent. Engineering in Virginia, therefore, is structurally maintained as a white field, for white talent. The American people are eagerly awaiting Glenn’s journey to space; little do they know the progress of U.S. space advancement is tied to the progress of integrating their schools—a measure met with opposition from large segments of the Southern white population. Jackson petitions the city of Hampton to allow her entry to the all-white school and breaks the barrier that had been erected to keep people of color from accessing opportunity and actualizing their talent. What is seen by opponents of integration as an advantage for people of color and a loss for white students and families is, actually, a gain for the entire nation.
Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn teaching black female mathematicians about the IBM 7090. Source: https://ladybusiness.dreamwidth.org/2017/01/09/hidden-figures-brings-the-excellence-of-historic-black-women-to-2017.html
Dorothy Vaughn similarly asserts herself in NASA’s work to accelerate progress in space travel. With the arrival of the IBM 7090, a machine that can rapidly compute calculations, Vaughn realizes that the new IBM could displace the black female computers she unofficially oversees. She throws herself into learning about the machine to ensure a place for her talent in the transition to using the IBM. But of course, the literature that would help her learn about the machine is in the whites-only section of the library. In the film, Vaughn’s character “bends” the rules by taking the book from the library, even though it is not approved reading for African Americans. From this book, she teaches not only herself, but also her all-black team of female mathematicians. By educating herself, which required covert studying and disobeying Jim Crow laws, Vaughn becomes the first person to successfully operate the IBM—something that made everyone’s work easier, more efficient, and ultimately made the U.S. more competitive.
Taraji Henson as Katherine Johnson, the first black female members of NASA’s Space Task Group Source: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/how-hidden-figures-got-1960s-kodachrome-look-963042
Finally, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson, who faces discouraging messages and procedures at every turn. She’s needed on the Space Task Group to calculate high-level equations to ensure Glenn’s safe orbit—the first black female to serve on the prestigious team—but she’s resented by her white counterparts. Her colleagues undermine her abilities and her contributions—everything from installing a “colored” coffee maker and excluding her from critical meetings. When Katherine spends critical work time walking miles to the “colored” bathroom, when she’s given partial information because she’s not deemed trustworthy, the nation falls further behind in the Space Race. But when segregation of facilities is no longer enforced and Katherine demands and is provided a seat at the table during top-secret meetings and knowledge-sharing, only then does the U.S. emerge victorious in sending the first American into orbit. Our whole nation benefited when Katherine succeeded, and she had the opportunity to fully contribute her talents only when intentionally exclusive, white-supremacist barriers came toppling down.
Jackson, Vaughn, and Johnson’s stories teach us about the collective cost and unnecessary drain caused by Jim Crow policies in the South, as well as raise the question of why so many defended these policies in the first place. In hindsight, it seems obvious that structural and micro-level racial discriminations divided critical talent and held the whole country back. Stories like this always cause me to think: What kinds of harmful inequities will seem obvious to us fifty years from now? Instead of experiencing this history lesson and blockbuster film as a voyeuristic trip to the past, Americans can use the insights gained from Hidden Figures to sharpen our understanding of current barriers to opportunity—and consider what we all might be losing in defense of policies and structural practices that make it harder for those suppressed by disadvantage to maximize their full potential.
And surely there is much unsupported talent trapped in the lowest income quintile, particularly here in the American South, where a child born to parents with earnings at the bottom of the rung has only a 0-6.4 percent chance of entering a career with earnings in the top income quintile as an adult. The researchers who unearthed these alarming data found that this stalled mobility was associated with lower quality schools, high rates of racial residential segregation, lack of connection to social capital, lack of two-earner households, and high rates of income inequality. These factors exacerbate one another: income inequality combined with racial residential segregation creates inequitable quality of schools, negatively affecting students of color at a disproportionate rate, given local school funding formulas that often rely on property taxes. These economic mobility toxins plague the South at a higher rate than any other region in the U.S.—the same region, of course, that clung to racial segregation and Jim Crow legal discrimination for so many years. These exclusive policies were designed to bar people of color from accessing the same degree of opportunity and success as the white population, and the data show us that historical educational and economic suppression carry long-lasting symptoms that have intergenerational effects on families and entire communities.
Source: New York Times, based on Equality of Opportunity Project data
But the stories shared in Hidden Figures tell us that when the walls of exclusion are lifted, when white superiority is debunked as talent across identities is valued, we all go farther together. Our nation houses an abundance of unique passion and talent. The choice is ours: Will we make room for our collective potential and insist on equity for all, from childhood to the workforce? Or will we pay the price of our own scarcity mentality? Like the film’s character Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) tells a white NASA worker, who is disgruntled by Katherine Johnson’s presence and recognition of talent, “We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.” Or—as we like to say at MDC: “Society benefits when everyone succeeds.”
These Monroe community work session participants say #NCMobilityMatters because connection = success!
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’ve documented several community work sessions discussing the findings from that report here on the blog. As we crossed all of North Carolina’s prosperity zones, we saw unique challenges facing rural and metro areas, but we also witnessed similarities.
Take the community work sessions that were held in Monroe and Wilkesboro. Monroe is a growing city, part of Union County (which has a significant rural population), on the edge of the Charlotte metropolis. Wilkes County is a rural county on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its population spread across 757 square miles. But in both places, we were hosted by a North Carolina community college and the local Chamber of Commerce served as a key partner. One place is trying to find a way to restore or reimagine a manufacturing economy; the other is looking for ways to encourage participation in the advanced manufacturing opportunities that exist. Both are grappling with limited public transportation systems and affordable housing options that would ease the burden on families trying to make ends meet and get ahead.
In each community work session, we’ve asked people to share their mobility stories. We ask them to think about how their starting point affected where they ended up, and to consider what people or policies or simple serendipity cleared a path or propelled them to their current situation. The same elements showed up in Wilkes County and in Monroe (and nearly every other work session):
- Adults—often educators—who “believed in me”
- Personal drive
- Military service and the GI bill
- Education (and related scholarships, including athletic opportunities)
- Public policies (like war bonds) that allowed people to save and transfer wealth
The headwinds faced were also similar, including public policies that were not available because of discriminatory practices. These shared experiences are a great example of how systems and aspirations intersect. In order to make the elements of an infrastructure of opportunity pervasive and available to more people across North Carolina, communities must find ways to cultivate aspirations and institutions that are launching pads for the enormous potential that exists in our residents. It may seem a daunting challenge, but as Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College, said “we’re not afraid of a fight and we’re ready to move forward, ready to tackle the problems we have. We’re ready to get about the business of solving those problems. We need to look forward.”
Conceptions of the American Dream often frame upward mobility as an ideal best accomplished through individual effort and perseverance. However, persistent racial disparities despite similar inputs demand a reconsideration of the story we tell ourselves about the degree to which success is available to everyone. A recent report using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances shows that, in 1983, white households held, on average, 5.3 times greater wealth than black households and 6.1 times greater wealth than Latino households. By 2013, those rates had increased to 7.7 and 6.7 times greater, respectively. This is a growth of 85 percent for white households, but only 27 percent for black households, and 69 percent for Latino households.
What is more striking, however, is that even if the wealth of black and Latino households had grown at the same rate as white households or even as drastically as those on the Forbes 400 list (a 736 percent increase in wealth between 1983 and 2013), their wealth would still not match the wealth held by white households. Black households would fall short by $181,000 and Latino households would fall short by $270,000. The report concludes that:
“If average Black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today. That’s just 17 years shorter than the 245-year span of slavery in this country.”
Catching Up: The Racial Wealth Gap is Unlikely to Narrow
In order to catch up to white families, black and Latino families would need to find a way to increase their wealth by over 700 percent. But traditional drivers of wealth creation do not produce as much value for people of color relative to their white counterparts (with the exception of Asians). For example, education has long been described as the great equalizer and, while there are significant economic returns to a college degree, there are large earnings and wealth gaps by race even among those who have earned postsecondary degrees. Similarly, homeownership is the largest expenditure for many families and represents a large portion of their total wealth, but non-whites are less likely to own their own home and, when they do, their property values are significantly lower. Given the extent to which homeownership is constrained by income and student loan debt (which is accumulated in larger amounts by non-white students), these racial disparities are not surprising.
Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The College Payoff. 2011
Intergenerational transfers of wealth are another major contributor to wealth creation, but for black families, this strategy is much less successful. Black children born into moderately wealthy families (the middle wealth quintile), are more than twice as likely as white children to fall from the middle to the bottom quintile as adults (33 percent vs. 14 percent).
This trend is especially concerning in the South, with deep racial divides in economic opportunities and a long history of excluding racial minorities from sources of wealth accumulation. For example, the high degree of residential segregation found in the South further exacerbates the gap in wealth created by home ownership; neighborhoods with higher concentrations of non-white residents often have significantly lower property values. Coupled with lower rates of intergenerational income mobility, this suggests that an even greater challenge exists for black and Latino families hoping to build wealth and economic security.
New Outcomes Require New Systems
If black and Latino families are pursuing the same strategies for upward economic mobility as white families, why aren’t they reaping similar rewards? As we’ve written before, our history, particularly in the South, of economic dependence on forced and exploitative labor limited opportunities for wealth creation for those outside the economic elite, and particularly for people of color. Unequal investment in community resources that are beneficial to the entire population, like schools, transportation, and healthcare compounded these issues. This history and it’s continued legacy, apparent in current disparities, undermines a pillar of our proclaimed American ideal that upward economic mobility is available to all who are motivated, persistent, and hard-working. If we believe that closing the racial wealth gap is an issue best solved with strategies implemented at the individual level, what then, is a viable pathway for black and Latino families to catch up, if not through education, income, or homeownership? If we do not have a good answer to this question, we cannot continue to tell ourselves that the only thing standing between poverty and prosperity is a strong work ethic. Instead, we must commit to systemic changes at the institutional level, which focus on the racial disparities among major drivers of wealth creation and create an infrastructure of opportunity that is prosperous for everyone.