Closing the Opportunity Gap in Vance County

Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthening the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC held enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence. The new superintendent of Vance County Schools, Dr. Anthony Jackson, participated in those discussions. Jackson was featured last week in WUNC’s series on rural schools, Perils and Promise. In his interview with Leoneda Inge, Jackson spoke about how his personal experiences influence how he sees his students:

Coming from DC as an individual, growing up in what I considered somewhat of a desperate situation, in what people call the projects of Washington, D.C., I’ve learned that it’s truly about helping children close what we call the ‘opportunity gap.’  And having them understand that because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Today, the opportunity gap in Vance—and surrounding counties—is stark. Parts of Granville and Franklin counties have become bedroom communities for the Research Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—part of the halo of one of the fastest growing metros in the U.S. The labor markets of the areas blend together, potentially creating more diverse job opportunities for residents. But Vance and Warren counties, while not impossibly far for determined commuters, retain their largely rural character. After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances of upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 18 percent of adults in Vance County and 20 percent in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher.

In Vance County Schools, 91 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and the 2013 graduation rate was 65 percent, much lower than the state average of 83 percent. In parts of the region, many affluent families have enrolled their children in private schools. In this environment, young people growing up in low-income families aren’t getting much positive reinforcement from the community. “Being poor doesn’t relegate you to being unsuccessful,” says Carolyn Paylor, executive director of Franklin-Granville-Vance Smart Start. Young people in the community need to know that their future matters and that the community wants them to succeed.

“Too many people seem paralyzed by past failures—we aren’t spending enough time lifting up current success stories,” says Dr. Jackson. In his view, this mindset is the first thing that needs to change. So, along with other leaders in the region, the superintendent is committed to changing the conversation about student success. “We are waiting for some magic bullet program, but it’s really about building the capacity of our parents, about teaching them how to advocate for their kids to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences,” he says. Since he started as superintendent, he looks around and sees students, parents, and teachers who are trying in spite of difficult circumstances—and he sees many who are succeeding. He wants to make sure all students receive the support they need, even those who don’t match what people imagine as a “typical” successful student.

To begin that shift toward more collective concern for community well-being and expanded aspirations, strategic improvements in the education-to-career continuum are being made. Several new programs to provide students with additional pathways to career success are underway: two career academies, one focused on medicine and another on fire and public safety, as well as an alternative high school for students who were not successful at the county’s other high schools. Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC) has partnered with the local school systems to establish early-college programs in each of the four counties. Students enroll at the start of high school and graduate with a two-year degree, or college credit, within five years. The community college also links to nearby four-year institutions to ensure students have an array of degree options and clear academic pathways; through a partnership with North Carolina Central University, students can complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice on the VGCC campus.

These pockets of innovation and excellence show what is possible for the future. But the region still needs strong collaborative leadership to organize around a vision for the future economy. Local leaders must continue their work to change the conversation about poverty and who is likely to succeed. “We can’t allow poverty to be an excuse for not providing opportunity,” says Dr. Jackson. Changing that mentality will take inclusive planning strategies so that the region’s people share ownership of a vision for educational and economic success.

Abby Parcell contributed to this post. 

All the People, Not Just Some

“We the People.” Our Constitution begins with those three simple words, words we’ve come to recognize mean all the people, not just some; words that insist we rise and fall together, and that’s how we might perfect our Union.

In his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama covered a range of important issues—from foreign relations to scientific and tech innovation to a call for respectful bipartisanship (yes, please!)—but the theme that resonated most for us on the State of the South blog was about economic trends that have made it increasing difficult for working and middle class families to get ahead:

All these trends have squeezed workers, even when they have jobs; even when the economy is growing. It’s made it harder for a hardworking family to pull itself out of poverty, harder for young people to start their careers, tougher for workers to retire when they want to. And although none of these trends are unique to America, they do offend our uniquely American belief that everybody who works hard should get a fair shot.

This struggle for a fair shot has been particularly acute in the South, where even in our most economically dynamic places, 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. According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, intergenerational mobility is lowest in the South, as shown by comparing outcomes for adult children who grew up in families with the same incomes but in different places. In the following chart, the 100 largest U.S. commuting zones are ranked by the estimated percentage gain or loss in income for an adult child from a low-income family, compared to the national average. One way to think of this is that there is a greater “penalty” for people who grew up in low-income families in some places than in others. At 95th, people from low-income families in Raleigh earn an estimated 13 percent less as adults than those born in a place with average mobility. Nine out of ten of the lowest ranked metros are in the South; in the highest ranked third of metros, only two Southern cities, both in Texas, make the cut:

CZ Future Income

The problem is not just that too few people have a chance to escape poverty; there are large numbers working and middle class Southerners who are economically insecure. When so many people are unable to find consistent work that pays reasonably well, our whole economy suffers: people cannot build savings and wealth through critical investments like homeownership. They cannot afford to go back to school and build skills for a new career in an emerging industry. They cannot save up to take a risk and start a business. And, critically, they cannot invest in educational and extracurricular enrichment for their children or save for their postsecondary education. For every generation that is not adequately prepared for economic success, the situation remains the same for their children.

Say a hardworking American loses his job — we shouldn’t just make sure that he can get unemployment insurance; we should make sure that program encourages him to retrain for a business that’s ready to hire him. If that new job doesn’t pay as much, there should be a system of wage insurance in place so that he can still pay his bills. And even if he’s going from job to job, he should still be able to save for retirement and take his savings with him. That’s the way we make the new economy work better for everybody.

There are policies that can make supposedly “transitional” jobs in our economy quality jobs. Educational policies can support training with stackable credentials so people can move up the ladder from entry-level to a career. And, as President Obama said, there are policies that can support start-ups and small businesses and larger employers “who’ve figured out that doing right by their workers or their customers or their communities ends up being good for their shareholders.” But as important as good public policy is, it must be implemented through public and private systems and institutions—schools, colleges, social service agencies, and employers—that are often not working together to address barriers to economic security. Policy can provide direction and incentives for systems change, but changed outcomes at scale require changed systems.

This Washington Post story from Chico Harlan, demonstrates the massive systems failure —in access to and quality of transit, housing, education, and employment—for low-wealth people in the South. The story follows a woman in Atlanta who faces a two-hour journey on public transit to get to a job interview: sixty-nine stops on a bus; a nine-minute train ride; an additional 49 stops on a bus; a quarter-mile walk. All for what would have been a 27-minute drive. Harlan’s article reveals the additional barriers individuals face—those hardworking Americans mentioned above—when available housing and quality child care are far from job opportunities. Those barriers arise when systems—which may appear invisible to many of us, because they are working well enough for us—are not designed to achieve the outcomes we often say we want: a fair shot for everyone who is willing to put in the effort.

If you’d like to discuss your Southern mobility experience with the President, you can join a post-State of the Union interview today on YouTube at 2:15 ET. If you’d like to discuss mobility in the South with less presidential people like us, find us on Twitter and Facebook, #stateofthesouth.

Abby Parcell contributed to this post. 

Passing Gear Philanthropy: 10 Years of the Danville Regional Foundation

danville-cover-imageWith an economy that grew with the tobacco markets, Danville, Va., like many Southern cities, flourished as a textile milltown for much of the 20th century, becoming one of the South’s wealthiest small cities. By 2004, decades of slowdown became a full-blown crisis. Dan River Mills, the largest employer in Danville and once the largest textile firm in the world, laid off its last employees in 2006, all while the region’s wealthy tobacco economy vanished. The demise of Dan River Mills altered the economic and social fabric of the community: job options for the working class became scarce, the middle class shrank, and young people had fewer economic opportunities as they joined the workforce. It was into this environment that the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF) was introduced; Danville Regional Medical Center was sold to LifePoint Hospitals, Inc., and $200 million was invested to create the foundation. Since their founding in 2005 (happy 10th anniversary), DRF has engaged in local investment to help the Danville region see and realize what’s possible: a post-mill economy that offers broad opportunity. Along with their partners in the region, DRF is committed to aspirational planning for long-term economic vitality, equipping people in the region with the adaptive skills they need to succeed during economic transition, and building the leadership and organizational capacity to manage change and maintain momentum in the future.

As late as 1969, Danville had a median household income that was equivalent to the rest of Virginia and the U.S. as a whole. Today, the median income is in Danville is half that of the state of Virginia, and only a little more than half that of the U.S. Here, as in much of the South, access to opportunity goes up dramatically based on your economic situation, race, and social connections. The challenge now is responding to rapid and unpredictable shifts in economies and labor markets that make it difficult for young people and community leaders to decide how to invest in their education and skills. The Danville region is trying to develop and attract new economic drivers with living-wage employment, and working to ensure that community members, particularly young people, have the skills to compete in the new economy.

These are major challenges, but with significant resources and leadership coming from the Danville Regional Foundation, the Danville area is better positioned to strategically invest in the community’s future than many places in the South. “We’ve got close to $8 million invested in building a new workforce pipeline that will lead people in this region to having really high quality, living wage jobs and they’ll do that because they’ve gotten a great training,” says Karl Stauber, president and CEO of DRF, in an interview with the Danville Register & Bee. “Our greatest hope is that those jobs will be here. The city and the county economic development offices are actually using that pipeline as a way of helping to recruit new businesses.”

This kind of investment is a perfect example of what MDC calls Passing Gear Philanthropy. In our 2007 State of the South report, Philanthropy as the South’s “Passing Gear,” we described the unique role that philanthropy can and must play to help Southern communities improve their economic competitiveness and civic cohesion:

In order to extricate the South from its imbedded inequities, however, Southern philanthropy will need to make strategic use of its freedom to act…Philanthropy can be catalytic, imaginative, and pioneering. It can test new ideas, build new institutions, and lower the cost of social innovation by subsidizing risk.

Philanthropic institutions are positioned to make investments that private markets and public policy may not be able to, because those sectors have limited flexibility in how they can address complex social issues; the monetary return may be difficult to calculate, public consensus may not have been reached, leadership turnover is frequent, and resources are often allocated to familiar programs. As Stauber explains, “We can take risks that others may not be able to take. We don’t have to satisfy stockholders. We don’t have to run for re-election.”

Compared to other local entities, philanthropic institutions are generally more able to be flexible and stay committed to a long-term plan—able to take both the long view and respond to immediate conditions. The Danville Register & Bee article about DRF’s ten-year anniversary details the strategies that DRF has prioritized, from supporting a major pre-K initiative, to workforce pipeline investments like a STEM academy in the high schools and a nursing program at Averett University, to building a stronger infrastructure for economic development and fostering entrepreneurship. None of DRF’s strategies will work with their investment alone; “everything we do we do [is] in partnerships with others,” says Stauber. For example, foundation investments in downtown revitalization are part of a package that includes $25 million from DRF and the public sector and $100 million from the private sector. While these initiatives are already paying off in the region, their full results won’t be evident for generations. From Stauber’s view, “That kind of slow and steady progress is what it’s going to take to return this place to a place of prosperity and a place of opportunity.”

MDC helped guide creation of the Danville Regional Foundation. For more about MDC’s role in Danville, take a look at our monograph, The Only Way Out is Up: How MDC helped Danville, Va., chart a new vision for its future.”


Creating Equitable Opportunity in Warren County, NC

Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthen the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC has been holding enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence.

Even though MDC has roots in this area, like the Human Resources Development Program, the Rural Community College Initiative, and the Program for the Rural Carolinas our team has been fascinated to learn more about these counties. Coincidentally, two of our favorite news sources—CityLab and EdNC—have been talking about Warren County this month, and we want to share a little bit about what we’re learning about that county’s history of inequity and one way people there are building for a more equitable future.

Stretching along the Virginia border and the shores of Lake Kerr and Lake Gaston, Warren County remains distinctly rural despite I-85 running through it and its proximity to one of the state’s most economically dynamic metropolitan areas. The region’s economic history is archetypal North Carolina: tobacco and cotton farming, driven by slave-labor until the end of the Civil War. Tobacco and cotton are labor-intensive crops, and the soil in the area was well suited to their production. In 1860, 10,401 people in the county, or 66 percent of the total population, were enslaved African Americans. The slave population was twice that of the white population—the highest ratio in the state. When enslaved African Americans were freed at the end of the Civil War, many became sharecroppers in a system where land owners provided land and resources to croppers in exchange for a significant portion of the crop. The legacy of an agricultural economy, which created immense wealth for some by exploiting the labor of many others, and subsequent legalized segregation which barred African Americans from opportunity, presents unique challenges for broadening economic opportunity in the region today.

By the turn of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and the legal, social, and economic rights of African Americans in the area were significantly constrained. The massive population shift of African Americans leaving the South, known as the Great Migration, was felt in Warren County: between 1950 and 1970, the African American population in the region decreased by 20 percent. While the prospect of jobs and upward mobility certainly pulled people to the North, many felt themselves pushed away from the communities they called home because of entrenched racism and legalized segregation.

After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances at upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, and particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier agricultural and manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 20 percent of adults in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher. The area also faces significant health challenges. According to County Health Rankings, Warren County ranks 92nd in North Carolina (out of 100) in an index of health factors, including health behavior, access to care, and social and economic factors. One-fifth of people were uninsured in 2015, almost twice the national average (though that figure is down from one-quarter in 2013). Nearly a quarter of all people are food insecure, according to Feeding America.

Despite its challenges—or because of them—the area has a strong history of community organizing and activism, particularly civil rights organizing. In the 1970s, Floyd McKissick led the development of Soul City, a planned multi-racial community with an explicit mission of black empowerment, profiled here by Brentin Mock of CityLab. Ultimately, the economic downturn and political opposition prevented Soul City’s completion. “Oh, it was visionary, it was bold, it had the concept though not the financial backing as it turned out, to be a stimulus to turn around that kind of a rural area,” said Eva Clayton in a 1989 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. Clayton, who in 1992 was North Carolina’s first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, worked in the Soul City administration in the 1970s. While Soul City did not flourish into the thriving community that McKissick and others envisioned, the infrastructure continues to be used, and it created organizing energy that continued in the region, as Mock discussed in another article last week. For example, in the early 1980s, when the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources decided to build a PCB landfill in Warren County, the community responded with organized protests due to significant public health risks. Hundreds were arrested. Because the area was predominantly African American and low income, and the conditions at other sites would have been more environmentally responsible, the decision to locate the landfill there led Benjamin Chavis, who later became executive director of the NAACP, to start using the term “environmental racism.”

Today, local institutions and groups are still thinking creatively about how to broaden prosperity in the region and improve wellbeing. In an article this week for EdNC, Nation Hahn interviewed Gabriel Cummings, founder of Working Landscapes, an organization that is working to improve access to healthy food in Warren County. Cummings is thinking about more than just health; the organization also wants to improve local livelihoods:

When people think about farm-to-school work, they probably mostly think first about the benefits to children — health, education, etc. — and rightly so. But farm-to-school work can also be a powerful engine for economic development. In fact, that is why we got into it. We were interested in opening up new markets for small, local farmers. In Warren County and other rural counties of our region, the school system is the largest purchaser of food. However, the school system was not buying any food from local farmers, so it was having zero impact on the local agricultural economy. We set about changing that. Our farm-to-school supply chain is small, but already it has created employment both on and off the farm, and it has spurred capital investment through the redevelopment of a building in Warrenton that would otherwise be sitting empty. And that is just from chopped collards and cabbage!

Farming may have created many of this region’s long-standing inequities, but a new generation of leaders is thinking about how to turn the region’s history and assets into a more equitable future. Many of the challenges Warren County has faced are emblematic of Southern history. Reflecting on the story of a place—who started there, who left and why, who tried to reinvigorate it, who has benefited from opportunity, and who has been left behind by economic and social change—is essential work for all communities as they build an infrastructure of opportunity.

The Secret to Being a Strong Job Candidate in Today’s Economy

What’s one thing that most growing occupations have in common? They require high levels of social skills. A recent New York Times article highlighted this trend, noting that “skills like cooperation, empathy and flexibility have become increasingly vital in modern-day work.” The article included a telling chart:


It’s clear that social skills are an important characteristic of our modern workforce, and most individuals will need them in order to compete for career opportunities. Even as our education and training systems seek to teach and hone those skills, questions remain about how social skills are evaluated by the labor market. Who decides what social skills are, and how can an employer tell if someone has them or doesn’t? There are more quantifiable ways to sift through candidates such as background checks (similar to an Australian police check nsw) for delicate jobs, like working with children.

But with something like social skills, the definition and measurement are subjectively determined, which means employers searching for good social skills must be wary of unconscious bias. A candidate with a different background from the typical employee of a given company may not be perceived to have the same level of social skills as someone whom the employer finds relatable.

The power of unconscious bias in skewing our perception of subjectively defined skills is seen in a recent study: academic fields that prioritize brilliance and raw talent tend to have lots of white men in them, while fields that emphasize the importance of hard work tend to have larger percentages of women and people of color. Women make up less than a third of PhDs in economics and philosophy, and 20 percent or less of PhDs in physics and computer science. Unconscious bias influences who we think of as brilliant and talented-if you don’t look like the typical applicant, then the employer may not be as able to see your unique talent.

Our educational pathways shouldn’t be designed to focus too specifically on one career or occupation. While a combination of real-time job-opening data and labor market projections can help target programmatic offerings, unpredictable innovations and macroeconomic trends still cause a lot of uncertainty.

Students deserve a strong return on investment from their educational program, but we also need to make sure we do not develop parallel systems of higher education for students based on socioeconomic background: adaptable skills for the affluent to compete in an ever-changing knowledge economy, and narrow skills for low- and moderate-income students to get a technical job right now. Students need flexible skills that will allow them to compete in an unpredictable future labor market. Even as we prepare students who do not have the luxury of exploration for entry into the workforce-students who need the economic boost of a credential, and as soon as possible-we can make sure their education has long-term value.