Weathering the Storms: Economic & Environmental Resilience

View from Moratoc Park in Williamson, NC, overlooking the Roanoke River

View from Moratoc Park in Williamson, NC, overlooking the Roanoke River

For communities across the U.S., the wrap-up of summer means the start of school, crisper and cooler air, and college football season. For Southern and East Coast states, this time of year is also marked by the looming threats of hurricane season. Already this season, we’ve seen two significant hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, bring destruction to coastal islands and Southern communities. A natural disaster that damages homes, businesses, and local infrastructure can be an inconvenience at best and a devastating set-back at worst for communities that are working hard to improve outcomes for their residents. When we consider what it takes to create Southern places characterized by belonging, thriving, and contributing, we know it’s important for communities to be forward-thinking about equitable growth and bright spots of opportunity—and we’re reminded that environmental resiliency is crucial to these efforts. We’ll be exploring the need for this kind of resilience in Southern communities. We’ll talk about the risks posed by climate change, who is particularly vulnerable to these risks, and why this matters for communities that seek to propel their residents toward higher levels of upward economic mobility.

Today, we begin with an examination of 17 northeastern North Carolina counties that know all too well the frustrations and obstacles brought on by environmental vulnerability. These counties—Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, Martin, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington—comprise North Carolina’s “Inner Banks,” part of the focus region of North Carolina Land of Water (NC LOW). NC LOW is a nonprofit organization supporting sustainable development of northeastern North Carolina’s natural resources and cultural history. While they focus on eastern parts of the state including the Outer Banks, NC LOW recently commissioned MDC to conduct a data scan of the state’s Inner Banks to examine educational attainment, poverty, upward economic mobility, availability of living-wage employment, and emerging industries. MDC visited some of these counties’ lovely natural spaces and spoke with local business owners who are dependent on the tourist economy driven by the region’s natural assets.

Pettigrew State Park Trail, by Somerset Place (formerly Plantation) in Creswell, NC

Pettigrew State Park Trail, by Somerset Place (formerly Plantation) in Creswell, NC

It’s not surprising that many entrepreneurs in the Northeastern part of the state have invested in the tourism industry, hunting and fishing services, and restaurants that welcome tourists. For rural communities close to the water and characterized by unique ecosystems, tourism can revitalize towns and turn communities into centers of celebration and festivities, as Chowan County has seen in the small town of Edenton. In fact, NC LOW would like to see local leaders in government and economic development place their bets even more on the ecotourism industry, rather than recruit industries that have the potential to harm the area’s natural resources.

According to Dr. Stanley Riggs, the Chair of the Board of Directors for NC LOW, in the past few years a new generation of young people returned to these counties with aspirations of starting guide services in the unique swamps and waters of the Roanoke River and Albemarle-Pamlico sounds. However, the localities hadn’t yet invested in the infrastructure needed to make this sector robust. Since then, some municipalities have built camping platforms, boat ramps, new parks, and other features that undergird the ecotourism industry.

For this economic development strategy to work, however, communities in Northeastern NC need to have environmental resiliency: decreased vulnerability to natural disasters and other forces that could harm the area’s natural resources. Last year’s hurricane season provides a case study of the damaging effects natural disasters can bring to local economies. In 2016 alone, Windsor, a small town in Bertie County, saw 10 to 20 feet of flooding in some areas three times over the course of the hurricane season, with Hurricane Matthew doling out particularly devastating effects on the heels of previous floods. Local business owners we surveyed referenced the area’s vulnerability to natural disasters as they discussed the challenges of having a brick-and-mortar business. One Windsor restaurant transitioned to a food truck after repeated flooding; the state’s FEMA policy covers homes, but not businesses. While this adaptation has been an exciting new experience and challenge for the business owners, closing their restaurant meant laying off many employees whom they valued and who, in turn, surely valued that source of income.

These effects are particularly troubling considering the high rates of poverty, low rates of educational attainment, and low chances for upward economic mobility in the Inner Banks counties. In Bertie County, for example, where the Windsor business is located:

  • 22 percent of the population lives in poverty (nine percent of the white population and 30 percent of the black population) (U.S. Census Bureau American FactFinder)
  • Only three percent of those born into the lowest income quintile in the area will make it to the top earnings bracket as adults, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project. Conversely, 72 percent of these individuals will stay in either the lowest or second-lowest earnings bracket as adults.
  • Only 47 percent of the white population and 27 percent of the black population have at least some education beyond high school.
  • In 2016, only 17 percent of jobs paying between $20-30/hour were occupied by workers with just a high school degree. Meanwhile, a single adult supporting one child must make an average of $20.98/hour to meet basic living expenses in Bertie County. (MDC analysis of EMSI data and the MIT Living Wage Calculator)

These factors alone create a discouraging situation for economic resilience—add recurring natural disasters to the mix, and it’s clear that communities like Bertie County, in which 62 percent of the population is black and 35 percent is white, are particularly at risk for the crippling effects of natural disasters, especially as those events are projected to occur with increasing frequency and strength.

nclow4

Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

We sometimes think about climate change affecting endangered species or making snow a little less likely here in the South. While scientists warn of the likelihood of both scenarios, it’s worth considering the economic dangers of climate change. Current global practices, such as relying heavily on fossil fuels, contribute to increasing atmospheric temperature, which may explain in part why we’re seeing such intense storms that relentlessly hit communities in the South. As we know, many of these communities are vulnerable due to proximity to water, low-lying lands, higher rates of poverty, lower levels of educational attainment, and policies that don’t adequately support recovery.

So what can communities like Bertie County—and its neighboring Inner Banks counties—do to increase environmental resiliency in its area, particularly when ecotourism seems like a promising economic development strategy? “Resiliency” doesn’t mean that a community is utterly invincible; it’s about being prepared so that recovery from unexpected set-backs like natural disasters or economic recessions can be as smooth and strong as possible. Resiliency can be built at local or state levels, for example, by creating recovery policies that more accurately reflect the realities of flooding or by ensuring that local manufacturers and other industries don’t contribute to the degradation of natural resources. Forward-thinking leaders in education and employment also can help build community resiliency by providing education and employment opportunities that lead to credentials and living-wage employment, so that residents can acquire the savings and safety net needed to literally “weather” life’s storms.

In our next State of the South blog on climate change in the South, we’ll examine an effect of natural disasters that doesn’t discriminate between rural and metro areas: the threats to healthcare centers and the patients they serve. Stay tuned, and from all of us here at MDC and State of the South, we extend our sincere condolences and hopes for recovery to those affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. To support local and national recovery efforts, you can donate to one or more of the many organizations assisting victims and their families in Houston and areas affected by Irma and Maria.

Your Degree, Job, and Chronic Stress: Addressing the Social Determinants of Health

Today is the first post from our 2017-18 Autry Fellow, Rishi Jaswaney. We’re happy to have him at MDC and writing for the State of the South blog!

We’ve all felt it before. That sinking feeling before a big exam, an interview, or when your favorite character on Game of Thrones is “removed from casting” in the throes of battle.

Stress. Side-effects may include: nausea, indigestion, headaches and excessive perspiration.

In limited amounts, stress can motivate us to pursue our personal and professional goals. As stressors pass in and out of our lives, the stress hormone, cortisol, naturally fluctuates, but as challenges persist, cortisol levels remain elevated. When stress is a chronic condition, it can be linked to anxiety, depression, and other developmental and psychological issues. Research documenting income-based patterns in health outcomes—including disparities in who is more likely to experience chronic stress—raises new questions regarding the state of health equity in our nation.

As seen in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chart below, serious psychological distress is associated with severe health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and diabetes. Even more concerning is the disproportionate clustering of these conditions in high-poverty communities, as reported by the CDC: “A total of 8.7 percent of adults with income below the federal poverty level had serious psychological distress, compared with 1.2 percent of adults with incomes at or above 400 percent of the poverty level.”

The daily economic, educational, and social challenges facing those in poverty can create barriers to health services and lead to poorer health outcomes. This idea is captured in the Social Determinants of Health framework, which The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined as the “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.” The general argument is that people in high poverty communities are more susceptible to certain illnesses, have less access to health care providers, and are frequently forced to delay care or medicine for financial reasons. The proximity of clinics, public transportation options, and the quality of food vendors, all affect one’s ability to address health concerns and seek care. As the social determinants of health concept has taken hold, organizations like Kaiser Family Foundation have adopted more nuanced definitions, incorporating more detailed categories, as shown below.

The WHO and others have emphasized how money, power, and the distribution of resources (through institutional decisions and policy implementation) shape community conditions and drive health outcomes. In places where education, employment, and accessibility are falling behind national averages, health outcomes are trailing along with them. For example, in North Carolina, counties with the lowest rates of postsecondary attainment and employment (Robeson and Warren counties) also rank poorly on measures of low birthweight, obesity, and diabetes prevalence. Counties with the highest rates of postsecondary attainment and employment (Wake and Orange counties) have the lowest rates of these indicators.

Source: National County Health Rankings

Source: National County Health Rankings

If education and employment are key drivers of upward economic mobility, then people must be healthy enough to take advantage of these opportunities. There are many narratives about educational attainment as a predictor of health outcomes. Formal education often provides foundational principles of nutrition, healthy behaviors, and general health literacy. Education is also an avenue for insurance benefits through school plans or future employment opportunities.  Lastly, education provides individuals with an intangible set of resources such as social networks, norms, and relationships that can cultivate healthy practices.

It is important to recognize that poorer health outcomes in high poverty areas have been driven by policy that marginalizes low-income communities. The provisions of the Affordable Care Act made strides in addressing issues of healthcare access, but in order to holistically address health equity, we must also consider the underlying environmental, social, and economic factors that enable good health. Improving preventative initiatives, health education, and access to nutritious foods are a few measures that could begin to eliminate these disparities, improve public health, and encourage, rather than hinder, economic mobility. Throughout my Autry year with MDC, I hope to continue shedding light on the social determinants of health that persistently marginalize low-income communities. Stay tuned for more posts on how these issues play out in Southern communities!

I Got It from My Momma: Economic Mobility and Motherhood

You have made an informed decision, assessed all of your options, and are going to be a mom! Congratulations! You have guaranteed yourself a lifetime of macaroni art, tiny hand prints, misspelled poems, and eventually some flowers, or even a nice handbag. As Mother’s Day approaches I am left contemplating what I could possibly give the woman who sacrificed it all for me. She gave me her time, her attention, and perhaps her economic mobility as well?

We can’t talk about mothers and the economy without discussing the history of women in the workforce. World Wars I and II brought more women into industry and public service jobs, filling vacancies left by servicemen. These vacancies broadened the scope of both the type of jobs and the types of women in the workforce. (Before World War I, many employers refused to hire married women.) By 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which mandated equal pay for both genders. Adding another layer of protection, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, banned discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.

Currently there are over 72 million women in the labor force, 47 percent of all workers. These women, however, are not paid the equal wage guaranteed to them by the Equal Pay Act, instead making 77 cents to every dollar made by their male counterparts. The wage disparities are even greater for women of color. African-American women earn only 64 cents, while Hispanic/Latinas are even worse off, with a mere 56 cents to the dollar.

wages

Both dual income and single mothers face similar challenges at work and with economic mobility. In a Cornell University study entitled “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” researchers found that employed mothers face discrimination that could significantly interfere with their economic mobility, in both wages and perceptions of competence and commitment. Using job applications for a pair of same-gendered and equally qualified applicants who differed on parental status, researchers compared hiring outcomes in both a laboratory study and with actual employers. They found that in addition to the gender wage gap women face, mothers experienced a per-child penalty of 5 percent. Researchers also found that mothers are perceived as less competent and committed to their work. (The opposite was found to be true for fathers in the workforce. They were seen as more committed and even offered higher starting salaries.)  Women without children were seen as more competent than men without children. The study was unable to determine the causal mechanism for this bias. The fact that evaluators offered higher salaries to fathers suggests a gendered mentality as to who the bread winner should be. (And let’s not forget the unpaid labor of mothers working in the home as primary caregivers. It is estimated that these moms should be paid about $59,862 for all of the work they do managing households and caring for children.)

These biases have even more devastating implications for single mothers, who do not have a supplemental income from a partner. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single-parent families in 2016, more than 80 percent were headed by single mothers. Of those single mothers, about 49 percent have never married and 51 percent are divorced, separated, or widowed. Single mothers earn well below married mothers on the income ladder: in 2013, single mothers had a median income of $26,000 compared to married mothers’ median income of $84,000. All in all, single mothers fare worse on almost all accounts when compared to married mothers. Making ends meet is especially challenging for single mothers with poverty rates five times higher than that of married mothers. This leads to a higher incidence of homelessness and subpar access to health care (75 percent of homeless families are headed by single mothers and over 20 percent lack healthcare).

As mentioned earlier, women of color face an even larger wage gap compared to men and white women. The challenges facing mothers of color—single and married, working and non-working—are notable. The proportion of female-headed working families is higher among African Americans (65 percent), compared with whites (36 percent), Asians (20 percent), Latinos (31 percent), and those in other racial groups (45 percent). Mothers of color must also manage the disparities in education, obtaining culturally relevant child care, and fear of violence that their children may face due to discrimination.

While there is no holiday where more money is spent to celebrate any one individual more than Mother’s Day, I wonder if mothers have the same place of high esteem in our policies or practices. Perhaps the best way to appreciate a mother’s role in society this year would be to offer equitable wages, flexible employment opportunities, and supportive services, like quality, affordable dependent care. (But you could send the flowers, too, I guess.)

Mad Men Marketing Tactics Compromise Our Best Anti-Poverty Program

If you’ve watched TV (or been exposed to any online advertising) in the last couple of months, you’ve almost certainly seen one of my favorite actors (and fellow Mizzou alumnus) John Hamm serve as the pitchman for a series of commercial spots promoting the tax services of H&R Block. April 15th is just around the corner!

Using slick advertising (explosions, zombies, and period-costumes) that will remind viewers of the hit TV show he is best known for, Mad Men, Hamm urges the viewer: “Don’t just get your taxes done, get your taxes won!”

Normally, I would give Hamm a pass on his role as a product pitchman; after all what celebrity hasn’t tried to benefit from their status? However, my years on MDC’s economic security team have brought me face-to-face with tax preparation business practices that prey on low-income working families by charging exorbitant fees. Those questionable fees and practices have taken a large bite out of one of our country’s largest anti-poverty programs: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Quick primer on the Earned Income Tax Credit

The EITC is one of the few federal programs that have received bi-partisan support since its initial passage. Signed into law under President Ford, and expanded by Presidents Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the EITC has had a significant impact on reducing poverty. In fact, President Reagan referred to the EITC as “the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.” Analysis by The Brookings Institution found that from 2009 to 2011, 2.2 million Southerners were kept out of poverty by the EITC alone.

For the 2016 tax year, as shown in the chart below from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a single parent with two children that has gross household income between roughly $14,000 and $18,000 may be eligible for the maximum credit of $5,572. Similarly, a married couple with two children and income between roughly $14,000 and $24,000 may be eligible for that same maximum credit. For families living paycheck-to-paycheck, the promise of a significant cash infusion from the EITC each year too often masks the effect of the cut that paid preparers take for their services. The magnitude of the tax refund dollars (driven primarily by the refundable EITC) that are diverted from our country’s low-income tax filers is astounding.

Source: Center for Budget and Policy Prorities

Source: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

 

Diverted Opportunity

In tax year 2014, 49 percent of North Carolina’s tax filers claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit used paid preparers. Using a conservative estimate for the average tax preparation fee of $200, over $91 million dollars were diverted from low-income households. Does $200 for tax preparation assistance sound egregious to you? Well, keep in mind that 60 percent of EITC-claiming tax households make less than $20,000 in adjusted gross income for the year. According to the NC Justice Center, the value of tax refunds diverted to paid preparers is equal to 85 percent of what the state of North Carolina spent on a state-based version of the EITC in 2014 before the General Assembly ended the program ($107 million).

While the tax preparation industry has shifted a good chunk of its advertisingeitc to its online products (which typically offer lower prices with fine-print caveats), brick and mortar stores are still where a large proportion of low-income households file their taxes. Most of the largest tax preparation firms operate a franchise model lending the weight of their corporate name to independent operators in communities across the country. These in-person locations typically charge consumers much higher rates to file their state and federal returns – and often charge extra for consumers claiming the EITC or to complete the necessary forms that to reconcile tax credits (financial assistance) received through the Affordable Care Act.

The high rates low-income households pay to meet their tax filing obligation isn’t the whole story. Consumer advocates have raised concerns about the lack of oversight and standards for the paid-preparer industry, but have not succeeded in securing protections against predatory practice. In testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance in 2014, Chi Chi Wu from the National Consumer Law Center noted that while CPAs, enrolled agents, and volunteers with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program must complete testing and operate under strict regulatory oversight, private preparers can open businesses and operate without licensing or regulation.

Liberty Tax Service, recognized by the chain’s prominent use of contractors dressed up like the Statue of Liberty roaming strip mall parking lots and busy street corners, promises prospective business owners that with a $40,000 franchise fee (and other associated start-up and operations costs) in as little as 60-90 days anyone can begin helping consumers file their most sensitive and important financial documents. Last year, an article by The Virginian-Pilot highlighted dozens of lawsuits and forced closures of franchise locations between 2014 and 2016. In at least one these cases, a franchise owner with 50 locations had his e-filing privileges suspended in connection to reports of widespread fraudulent returns.

Another prominent national chain, Jackson Hewitt, was the focus of a recent local news story out of Knoxville, TN where a local independent contractor purportedly charged a mother of two who only earns a little over $25,000 roughly $600 to prepare a simple two-page return. According to the statement from the corporate office, the error was simply a lack of communication with its franchise operators about the fee caps on preparation services.

 Strengthening our civic infrastructure for the low-income tax-filer

While the tax filing season is winding down, Southern communities should take the time to reflect on the important role that free tax preparation programs (both in-person and online) play in ensuring upward economic mobility for hard-working, low-income families. While large corporate tax-filing companies like H&R Block may have the most effective and beautifully crafted commercials (and John Hamm), they clearly don’t provide the best service for our region’s working poor. Instead, we should be looking to leaders in the South, like MDC’s Board Member Stephen Black of Impact America, that refuse to accept the current realities of the massive redistribution of the EITC to the paid preparer industry. In 2016, Mr. Black’s SaveFirst initiative supported a cadre of 675 IRS-certified student volunteers from universities across the South in completing nearly 16,000 tax returns and assisting clients in securing more than $20.4 million in tax refunds. Similar models of free tax preparation are offered by local volunteers (the majority of whom are retired CPAs) at VITA locations (the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program). For consumers that prefer the independence of filing their return online, there are free tax-filing programs like The Benefit Bank or free programs that are verified by your state’s department of revenue. While programs like VITA and The Benefit Bank may be lesser known, and have much smaller marketing budgets than their commercial counterparts, they are providing valuable high-quality assistance to the working households in your community striving to achieve economic mobility.

The Underground Railroad: Pathways, Leadership & the Role of Equity

This post is adapted from remarks MDC President David Dodson made on February 4 in Tempe, Arizona, to an audience of community college presidents, faculty, and administrators gathered for the American Association of Community College’s Pathways Project annual institute.

As I considered my remarks for today, my thoughts went to an extraordinary new novel by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad. It is a magical work. The historic Underground Railroad was a series of well-concealed way stations that gave sanctuary to enslaved Africans fleeing to freedom in the North. In Whitehead’s tale, the Railroad becomes an actual subterranean rail line, a marvel of technical engineering that literally burrows under the slave states of the antebellum South—a pathway to safety and salvation, complete with actual locomotives and rail cars.

As described by Whitehead, the Railroad itself is a work of genius:

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden cross-ties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus (pg. 67).

But the path is still not easy for those who view it as the one great hope for their liberation. Rules of passage are mysterious—opaque for people who have spent their lives in the closed and cruel system of slavery on plantations. Trap doors and dead ends make the path perilous. For those who do get on the Railroad, like the novel’s heroine, Cora, the danger of being captured and returned to the plantation—and to violent punishment—is a constant reality.

Cora is a young woman who has been brutalized in captivity. She is a third generation of her family to live in slavery. Her mother has run off from the plantation to seek her own freedom, leaving Cora to raise herself. Given a life of abandonment, forced to survive on the plantation by her own wit and native intelligence, Cora is relentless in her pursuit of freedom. She has escaped the plantation with Caesar, a brave fellow, also enslaved, who has seen glimpses of the wider world beyond the plantation and knows both the delights of freedom and the dangers involved in securing it. But Caesar is killed in a skirmish with a notorious slave catcher sent to find the duo. From that point, Cora persists to get to the railroad alone. By turns hopeful, terrified, confused she makes her way doggedly, alone.

For Cora, the beautifully engineered path of the railroad is a strange gift. Nothing in her life has prepared her to navigate it. Throughout the novel, she is truly dependent on the kindness of strangers, like station agents and conductors, to get to safety. Station agents, who shepherd escapees to railway stops, pair their knowledge of the path with their courageous spirit to help the enslaved enter the pathway to the freedom. Conductors rely on their own lived experience and geographic expertise to lead the train away from the cruel system of slavery and toward a land where survival and autonomy could become Cora’s reality.

The book follows Cora on her journey north from Georgia. The first stop on the railroad is South Carolina, a state that looks like the Promised Land, but in fact is a twilight zone of deception and cleverly concealed brutality. The next stop, North Carolina, possesses a culture of raw cruelty, where public lynchings are the occasions for picnics and band concerts in the town square. On Cora’s pathway to freedom, nothing is what it seems. Hope appears and then vanishes as each stopping point becomes a perverse mutation of the cruelty Cora has escaped on the plantation.

The Underground Railroad is about the unconquerable, existential human drive for the dignity of a better life. It is about the essential role that a brilliantly engineered salvific pathway plays to deliver a young woman to freedom and the fulfillment of her dreams. It is about the station agents and fellow travelers without whose leadership, courage, guidance, and wisdom Cora’s aspirations and even the pathway itself would have been insufficient to deliver a young enslaved girl to the threshold of freedom. It is, in many ways, a metaphor, for all that our work advancing equity and opportunity in the South requires.

The Underground Railroad speaks to me not just as a metaphor and as a literary work. It also is part of my personal story. My great-great grandfather, Stanton Hunton, with whom I am pictured here at the museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad in Chatham, Ontario, used the actual Underground Railroad to escape slavery in Virginia in the 1840s. Stanton’s story is worthy of a novel, itself, including two unsuccessful escape attempts before he managed to achieve (the Promised Land of) Canada, put his skills as a brick mason and carpenter to work for himself, and start a family. His story was the beginning of the mobility story of my father’s family.

Every family has a mobility story. And today the narrative of upward economic mobility and liberation is unquestionably dependent on attaining a postsecondary credential that prepares its holder to access, navigate, and advance within employment that offers meaningful, living-wage work. Like Cora and the Underground Railroad, the pathway from foundational education to a postsecondary credential to living-wage employment, even when brilliantly engineered, is fraught with pitfalls, trapdoors, headwinds, and rip-currents. Success in navigating the pathway requires the vigilant engagement of others at every step of the way, others who are committed to equity outcomes for each and every traveler.

And while Cora’s story offers a tale of overcoming, it also offers a caution. The Underground Railroad was a beautifully engineered system for ushering people to freedom. But its engineering was compromised by a surrounding culture that was not supportive of and, in fact, often hostile toward, people making the journey. In the absence of a fully supportive culture, Cora’s success depended on a high degree of personal heroism on her part that exacted a very high cost. The best engineered strategy for success along the pathway to upward economic mobility will run aground unless it is supported by a reinforcing culture of equity across the institutions that touch it. Otherwise the burden of success requires an unreasonable level of heroism on the part of individuals trying to make their way forward. And the cost of heroism can be toxic.

A few years ago, a deeply disturbing conversation ran across several issues of the alumni magazine of my college. Under the banner “My Classmates are Dying” was a dialogue carried out through letters to the editor of the alarmingly high, statistically significant rates of premature death by illness and even suicide of black men who had attended Yale College in the 1960s, when the university, an overwhelmingly white institution, began to open its doors seriously to men of color. (There were no women at Yale until the 1970s.) Death rates for African American alumni in the class of 1970 were three times that of whites in the same class. Scholars looking at these data and noting the physiological stresses associated with black men trying to advance in an often inhospitable culture made links to the phenomenon known as “John Henryism,” so named by the brilliant scholar of public health, Sherman James. According to legend, John Henry was one of the “steel drivers” who hammered down spikes used in the railroad expansion that made America big and rich. With the coming of the steam-powered drill, the livelihoods of the steel drivers like Henry were threatened. Henry, full of bluster, challenged the owner of the railroad to a contest pitting Henry against the new drill. Henry won the contest, but he died from the mental and physical strain.

John Henryism reminds us of the unacceptable personal burdens that fall on underrepresented people trying to navigate a culture where a commitment to equity is not pervasive. The price of success can be a harrowing journey like Cora’s or even life itself like the pioneers before me at Yale. And it persists. Just last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article about first-generation Latino college students who were able to obtain Social Security numbers that would allow them to lawfully work, drive, and pursue an affordable postsecondary credential, through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA.) The title of the article, “The Only Way We Can Fight Back is to Excel,” hit me in the gut. Excel at what cost? Like Cora? Like the Yale men?

We need less personal heroism and more equity and systematic support if the pathways we are dedicated to building are to deliver on their promise: Equity at every turn, for every individual on the path to opportunity. This work has existential importance for our young people and our institutions and our nation. Let’s let nothing stand in its way.