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.

What went wrong with the South?

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:

Deep South

Image source: Washington Post

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.

The True Situation

When President Obama gave a eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney last Friday, he urged us all to reflect on history as we work to build a more just society:

Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history — we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”  What is true in the South is true for America.  Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.  That my liberty depends on you being free, too.  That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle.  A roadway toward a better world.  He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.

If understanding history is the best way to break the cycle of injustice, we have a lot of learning to do. “Very few people in this country have any awareness of just how expansive and how debilitating and destructive America’s history of slavery is,” says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. “And so we are very confused when we start talking about race in this country because we think that things are ‘of the past’ because we don’t understand what these things really are, that narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African Americans throughout most of the 20th century.”

The South’s history of racially motivated terrorism and lynching, after all, was barely understood even as it unfolded. Journalist Ida B. Wells dedicated much of her career to documenting and raising awareness of lynching; in an 1893 speech, she lamented “lynch law” and expressed her conviction that “the apathy and indifference which so largely obtains regarding mob rule is other than the result of ignorance of the true situation.” Nearly 4,000 people were lynched between 1877 and 1950, and we only have that information because of the work of researchers, journalists, and advocates from Ida B. Wells to Bryan Stevenson. We’re still trying to expand knowledge of the true situation.

Even slavery is subject to persistent misconceptions. Margaret Biser, who spent years leading tours of a historic Southern home and plantation, wrote at Vox earlier this week about the ways people talk about slavery. They imply that many enslaved people didn’t have it so bad, that they were well taken care of, and often question whether they might have been grateful or loyal to slaveholders. “Folks have not always been taught that slavery was much more than just difficult labor: It was violence, assault, family separation, fear,” says Biser. These misconceptions are rooted in the rationalizations that slaveholders developed to establishing and maintain American slavery from its inception. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, “at $3.5 billion, the four million enslaved African Americans in the South represented the country’s greatest financial asset,” and slaveholders believed that black slavery, rather than contradicting ideals of equality, actually enabled white equality. Coates quotes Jefferson Davis:

You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race. The mechanic who comes among us, employing the less intellectual labor of the African, takes the position which only a master-workman occupies where all the mechanics are white, and therefore it is that our mechanics hold their position of absolute equality among us.

We have to understand this past, of how we built and maintain the narrative of racial difference, not as a footnote or blunder in an otherwise admirable advancement of American society, but as woven deeply into the fabric of our social and economic structures. When we acknowledge that, it’s not entirely surprising that nine black Americans were massacred in their church in 2015, that there are 784 known hate groups in the US, or that white Americans, and particularly white Southerners, harbor unconscious negative bias toward black people. It’s not surprising that middle-income black families live in neighborhoods that are lower income than those of low-income white families, nor that in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), NC, a place with some of the lowest economic mobility in the nation, 49 percent of black children are in high-poverty schools, compared to only 6 percent of white children. It’s not surprising that the median net worth of white households is 13 times greater than that of black households and 10 times greater than that of Hispanic households and this racial wealth gap persists even when income and educational attainment levels are the same. And it’s not surprising that our recent history includes redlining that destroyed the value of homes in black neighborhoods, urban renewal projects that fragmented and displaced black communities, mass incarceration that criminalizes large segments of generations of men of color, and predatory home-ownership and banking practices that target people of color as they begin to build wealth.

Once we understand that history, we may not be surprised by continued racial disparities, but we must be outraged by them. South Carolina State Senator Paul Thurmond—someone with his own legacy to understand and reconcile—stood and spoke of the “true situation” last week:

It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins, and work for a better future. That future cannot be built on symbols of war, hate, and divisiveness.

It is time to build that “roadway to a better world” and get on the road—even if it’s slow going and full of uncomfortable conversations; even if it means accepting responsibility for past injustice and opening our minds to hard realities. It’s the only way we’ll get there.

We Need Solid Ground, Not an Escape Route

It’s your lucky day! There’s new data available about inter-generational income mobility, this time at the county-level. Sadly, the data show fewer lucky days for children born in the South. Once again, it’s the region of the country with the lowest levels of mobility.

NYT mobility map

Map from The New York Times using Equality of Opportunity Project data.

Twenty-five of the 100 largest U.S. counties are in the South. When the 100 largest counties are ranked by mobility, 18 Southern counties are in the bottom half of the list. The seven Southern counties that make it into the top half are all in Florida, Virginia, and Texas. A low-income child growing up in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, will earn 13.8 percent less as an adult than in a county with an average level of mobility. (We went to Charlotte to find out how leaders there are responding to low mobility.)

The above data come from the Equality of Opportunity project. (We used one of their earlier studies on the geographic variation of mobility in the State of the South report.) Using data from Moving to Opportunity, a Department of Housing and Urban Development initiative, this new study illustrates the influence that birthplace has on a child’s income as an adult. As the NYT coverage of the study explains:

The main innovation of the new paper — part of the Equality of Opportunity Project, involving multiple researchers — is its focus on children who moved. Doing so allows the economists to ask whether the places themselves actually affect outcomes. The alternative is that, say, Baltimore happens to be home to a large number of children who would struggle no matter where they grew up.


The data suggests otherwise. The easiest way to understand the pattern may be the different effects on siblings, who have so much in common. Younger siblings who moved from a bad area to a better one earned more as adults than their older siblings who were part of the same move. The particular environment of a city really does seem to affect its residents.

The idea of comparing kids who move from a low-mobility place to a more mobile place is very useful for demonstrating the problem that the resources and infrastructure of place matter significantly for success. But the study’s results don’t suggest a clear solution for improving mobility at scale. Do we build escape routes for the lucky few to leave communities with low rates of mobility, or do we invest in the creation of conditions where economic success is possible, and consistently likely, everywhere? To significantly change the patterns of mobility in the South, we can’t just move everyone out of high-poverty counties or neighborhoods—we have to invest in those places to improve outcomes.

While the Equality of Opportunity Project’s research on the geographic variation of income mobility doesn’t demonstrate causal links (meaning, they don’t speculate on why a particular place has a low or high level of mobility), it does find strong correlations between five factors and the level of income mobility: economic segregation, social capital, family structure, income inequality, and school quality. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean any of these factors are causing low mobility; it’s likely that the historical and economic factors that led to low mobility in a place have also contributed to disparities, like lower quality schools or concentrated poverty.

The history of a community influences its current structure; wages, occupation types, economic and racial segregation, resource allocation for public services, and wealth distribution all follow the pattern of a place’s particular history of social exclusion and economic exploitation. Because of these place-specific contextual factors, many of the interventions we can make to improve economic mobility are within the sphere of control of local actors.

Southern communities must build strong place-based infrastructures of opportunity, consisting of a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity. This work is already happening across the South, from Brownsville’s community partnership focused on improving postsecondary success, Durham’s effort to improve education-to-career pathways, and Greenville’s public-private partnerships to combat intergenerational poverty. By investing in long-term, place-based efforts like these across the region, we can get closer to providing all Southern young people with a chance to thrive, regardless of race and ethnicity, gender, class, and neighborhood.

Claude Sitton, a powerful voice for the South

In January 1983, I spent two or three hours reviewing the columns that Claude Sitton wrote over the previous year on the Sunday editorial pages of The News & Observer of Raleigh. Then I wrote a succinct letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

After Claude died last week, I asked the Pulitzer office for a copy of that letter. In it, I described him as “one of the nation’s and the South’s preeminent journalists.” I characterized him as one who “speaks out in a strong, progressive voice, unafraid to challenge the major public officials and institutions of our state.” His writing had upheld “the finest traditions of Southern journalism.”

Barely three months later, Columbia University awarded Claude the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. I’m under no illusion that my letter or the 10 columns that I selected proved convincing to the journalists who serve as Pulitzer jurors. Rather, it was a prize won for an extraordinary outpouring of journalism that not only documented a dynamic period of Southern history but also had a profound influence on the demise of the region’s legal structure of racial segregation known as Jim Crow.