Charlotte / North Carolina

The city has significant educational and employment opportunities—critical pieces of an infrastructure of opportunity that is necessary to help young people succeed. But, as in many cities, for young people outside that economic dynamism, these resources are not accessible and strategically aligned.

Charlotte / North Carolina

by Abby Parcell

The Place: a global financial metro with 1.5 million residents

The Challenge: addressing increasing income inequality and ensuring that all young people in Charlotte have the skills to enter and compete in its dynamic economy

Elements of Opportunity Infrastructure: public and private partnerships at the neighborhood, institutional, and city-wide level to improve young people’s connections—both social and physical—to the resources and skills necessary for civic participation and economic success

On the surface, Charlotte, N.C., is a can-do city with pragmatic corporate support for public initiatives—sun reflecting off the bank buildings onto pleasant pocket parks. It has amenities that often follow that corporate culture: a convention center, professional sports teams, a light-rail system, along with some that might be unexpected, like a NASCAR hub and the Levine Museum of the New South, interpreting post-Civil War Southern society. Charlotte is a good representative of that new South: it has grappled with racial divides and witnessed a significant demographic change with in-migration from both Northern and Southern states, as well as Central and South America and Asia. But places are always more complicated than they seem. During the Great Recession, losses at the high and low ends of the economy exposed in Charlotte previously hidden risks: people stranded at the bottom, pressures from those shifting demographics, weakened conventional pathways to economic security, and signs of skepticism of Charlotte’s prevailing belief in the viability of public/private partnerships. Recently, the Charlotte Observer’s Taylor Batten wrote, “Charlotte has been on a great run for more than 30 years. The question is now whether we can sustain it.” As Charlotte grows and responds to these recent challenges, it’s not just at an old rail crossroad, but at the crossroad of the next New South—one that must respond to rising income inequality and contracting economic opportunity.

Mecklenburg County has just under one million residents living in Charlotte city center, suburbs, and its seven other municipalities. Thirteen percent are aged 15–24.The median income is $55,961, with an economy dominated by finance, energy, and health care. The region is making efforts to diversify its economy, from advanced manufacturing to transport and logistics. The population also has diversified over the last decade, with an increase in both Hispanic and Asian residents. Just over 80 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have at least a high school diploma or equivalent (slightly below the national average), but only 52 percent of the next age bracket—25 to 34—have at least a two-year degree (higher than the national average of 40 percent). These figures, along with the nine percent unemployment rate and a 14 percent poverty rate, suggest that not everyone is able to take advantage of Charlotte’s strong educational institutions and industry. That discrepancy contributed to Charlotte’s rank in the bottom 10 of the recent Harvard-Berkeley study on upward mobility in U.S. cities.

History and Context

Charlotte’s transformation from farmland to banking center began with the construction of railroads; there were three by the mid-1850s. Eventually, industrialists realized that the bales of cotton being transported through the area could just as easily be turning in Southern mills. By 1905, half of the South’s looms were within 100 miles of nearby Gastonia—though most outside of the Charlotte city limits. Charlotte preferred to finance the growth, which led to the next shift: a banking charter and lending to local entrepreneurs previously reliant on Northern banks for capital. A branch of the Federal Reserve was announced in 1927, the first national recognition of Charlotte’s place in the financial world. Assisted by North Carolina state policies that led the way in the South, changes to Federal interstate banking regulations in the 1980s, and aggressive bank leadership, the industry continued to grow into the 1990s. However, while banking was on the rise, Southern mills declined. (As Jane McIntyre, director of the local United Way said, the jobs in Charlotte now are “technical, not textile.”) Subsequent mergers, acquisitions, and the Great Recession have shuttered some and shrunk the workforce of others, but Charlotte banks are still central to the local economy and the national financial system, with sights set on a more global position.

A city is more than its industrial history. And inescapable in the history of any Southern city is the matter of race. White leaders in Charlotte were often more concerned about union organizing than civil rights organizing, though Jim Crow laws separated education, employment, and residential development, including years of policies that unsettled historically African-American neighborhoods and discouraged investment in them. However, black and white leaders dined together to integrate downtown lunch counters two years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, and in 1971 in their Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of mandatory busing to achieve school desegregation. After the ruling, business leaders united and applied their political influence—in the community and in school board elections—toward desegregation. Political alliances formed across race lines and helped move the community from resistance to acceptance, until the assignment program became a point of local pride and national recognition. Researcher Stephen Samuel Smith has noted that the demographic shift in the ’80s and ‘90s brought new residents who “not having lived through CMS’ [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools] desegregation battles…lacked the pride of more-established Charlotteans in the busing plan.”

A 1997 challenge to using racial guidelines for school assignment led to a 1999 U.S. District Court order for CMS to discontinue the busing effort. After appeals and shifts in school board composition that saw long-time members leave, a new assignment plan was adopted in 2001; subsequently, CMS saw a significant jump in school segregation. Such outcomes could have long-term consequences for economic and educational attainment for young people of color in Charlotte. And that has implications for economic mobility for all young people in Charlotte.

The Challenge

Charlotte has responded to recent data unveiling low economic mobility with efforts at the city, neighborhood, and institutional level. All will be essential to improving prospects for Charlotte’s young people. Those young people need experiences that help them move from education to careers and prepare them for civic life.

The city has significant educational and employment opportunities—critical pieces of an infrastructure of opportunity that is necessary to help young people succeed. But, as in many cities, for young people outside that economic dynamism, these resources are not accessible and strategically aligned. And, as Astrid Chirinos of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce noted, individuals at the bottom may move from survival to safety, but never make it to success.

Charlotte’s poverty rate has been inching up year-by-year, and a tight post-recession job market blocks some young people from prosperity. Some leaders lament a limited ability to foster financial security, entrepreneurship, and a sense of possibility in neighborhoods with chronic poverty. Ronald Carter, the president of Johnson C. Smith University, a legacy HBCU, is taking a different approach to neighborhood engagement and investment with the Northwest Corridor Revitalization initiative, securing private and philanthropic support to bring housing and commercial spaces, community health resources, urban gardens, and public art to a section of Charlotte left behind by other development. Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont is in the early stages of a new service model to establish economic connections for individuals who always have been on the fringes of the economy. CMS is at the center of a public/private partnership focused on improving academic outcomes in one of the city’s lowest performing high schools. The public institutions, philanthropists, and corporate supporters involved are concentrating their resources in the K–12 portion of the education-to-career pathway.

The city has significant educational and employment opportunities — critical pieces of an infrastructure of opportunity that is necessary to help young people succeed. But, as in many cities, for young people outside that economic dynamism, these resources are not accessible and strategically aligned.

The Analysis and Strategy

Charlotte has a long history of working across political, public-private, and municipal boundaries. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are often a connecting point. Efforts with local nonprofits and Central Piedmont Community College are prime examples.

Project L.I. F. T. (Leadership and Investment for Transformation) is a nonprofit organization operating as one of five CMS learning communities, with financial backing from local philanthropy and corporations and partnerships with community-based organizations. The project began with a UNC Charlotte analysis of neighborhood-level indicators like employment rate, school attendance, and teen parenting rate. Organizers identified children attending West Charlotte High School and its feeder schools as those with most significant barriers to achieving Project L.I. F.T.’s desired outcomes for academic proficiency and high school graduation. Focus areas include staffing schools with high performing principals and teachers; strengthening out-of-school-time partnerships; integrating technology to support principals, teachers, and students; and establishing school-based resource teams to connect schools and local communities. They maintain connections with four other high schools so lessons can be shared.

Project L.I.F.T. is committed to measuring improvement, but frequent revisions to state curriculum standards since the program began have presented reporting challenges and made it difficult to standardize professional development for teachers. Despite setbacks, Project L.I.F.T. remains committed to its expectations for accountability; partners that don’t meet metrics can’t count on continued funding. And those that see improvements are encouraged to share them. While there is an ongoing evaluation with yearly progress reports, they aren’t waiting to disseminate findings and new programing. CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark says, “If we see a proof point, we do it immediately.” It takes a lot of proof points to see widespread changes; Year-1 reports showed positive bumps in school climate measures, with improvement still to be made in academic proficiency indicators.

Project L.I.F.T. Goals:

  • 90 percent of students will be at grade-level in reading and math
  • 90 percent will achieve more than one year’s growth in one year’s time
  • 90 percent will graduate from high school


CMS recognizes that a high school diploma has to be the starting point—not the end goal—so they have developed an extensive dual enrollment program as well as a middle college with Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). There is a career development counselor at every high school who manages the CPCC dual enrollment program—and every CMS junior and senior is eligible. The institutions have articulated a number of career pathways, with an agreement that states CMS won’t duplicate any CPCC courses. Pathways include: sports marketing; culinary arts; automechanics; medical science; and biotech. The institutions also partner to support the sustainability program, including working for the passage of a recent bond referendum that will fund new construction at CPCC to house an expanding middle college program.

Questions and Next Steps

The city is developing a municipal response to a national issue—something they’ve done before—and these efforts could give young people more traction in the city’s economy. There is the common tension between generating immediate results and investing for long-term outcomes. In Charlotte, this seems to apply to both organizations (given corporate ROI expectations) and to individuals (meeting immediate needs vs. building resiliency). Navigating this tension requires trust—from the individuals who are struggling to make ends meet and from funders who are anxious to see results. While the results happen person-by-person, to see change at a community level, solutions have to be scalable. That means supporting what’s promising so that it can improve and expand. Jeff Michael of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute suggested, “Maybe before any of us go for another grant, we should figure out how to direct resources to those on the front lines like Project L.I.F.T., Renaissance West, and JCSU corridor development; we spend a lot of time speaking globally, but maybe over the next 10 years we should be investing in what we’re doing locally in neighborhoods.” To see a shift in mobility for young people, these discrete efforts will need to be coordinated, with institutions working with the same urgency and vision.

Charlotte may be big enough and well-resourced enough to make something happen, but they’ll have to deal with increasingly polarized state and federal politics and skepticism about public/private partnerships.
Some are optimistic about Charlotte’s ability to convene people and solve a problem; others worry that city leaders underestimate what continued immigration, a majority-minority shift, and increased suburbanization could have on the social contract, as well as transportation access to jobs, schools, and vibrant neighborhoods. Charlotte may be big enough and well-resourced enough to make something happen, but the city must deal with increasingly polarized state and federal politics and skepticism about public/private partnerships. It is even more important that those responding to these changes work together to integrate and increase the effectiveness of their efforts to ensure a secure infrastructure of opportunity for Charlotte’s young people. In our current economy, it’s hard to predict the future, but if Charlotte continues to support efforts already under way, they could have the future they say they want.

“Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation” takes a deep look at prospects and challenges for the region’s 15- to -24-year-olds. Southern communities need to create an “infrastructure of opportunity” for youth and young adults that is as seamless as the electric grid or the water system—and just as essential. That infrastructure consists of a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity.

Read more of the report.