Twenty Miles of an Unfinished Road to Opportunity

 How many miles of the pitch-black darkness must one walk to be deemed deserving?

In July, the story of Walter Carter, a student from Lawson State, an HBCU in Birmingham, Ala., went viral, garnering the attention of state and national news.

The story is compelling: a young college student’s car breaks down the night before he was to start a moving company job. After all his back-up options fall through, he decides to walk through the night to a job site nearly 20 miles away—a route that Google maps estimated would take roughly 7 hours. Walter began his walk shortly after midnight. Along the way, he is stopped by a police officer who, after “checking out” his story, gets him some breakfast, and drives him the last leg of his journey.

The customers of the moving company were so moved by the young man’s story and their interactions with him, they posted the soon-to-be viral social media post and started a GoFundMe page to show their appreciation.

Upon seeing the campaign, the moving company’s CEO drove to Birmingham in his own vehicle, which he presented to the young man as a gift in the presence of cameras and onlookers. “Everything he did that day is exactly who we are—heart and grit. So far, he’s batting 1,000,” said Bellhop CEO Luke Marklin.

The campaign has now raised over $45,000 and a local financial advisor has offered Walter pro bono assistance to save and manage his new windfall.

Media Script: Rinse, Repeat

Stories like Walter’s are often a welcome respite from a news cycle that seems increasingly polarized and negative. The pattern of media coverage and viral stories like Walter’s—framed around compelling personal narratives—follows a similar script.

  • Person encounters seemingly insurmountable personal roadblock in life.
  • Person overcomes roadblock with incredible personal drive, resilience, and/or faith.
  • A person of privilege, and influential social media presence, shares the story that goes viral.
  • News media pick up gripping personal narrative, with the protagonist receiving generous assistance from an online community (GoFundMe) or a wealthy donor.

Causal responsibility and remedy responsibility

For many, these kinds of stories are inspiring, providing hope in the resiliency of the human spirit and generosity of others. For others, the individual frame, however compelling, leaves an unsettling set of questions about how many others there are who face similar odds in the face of broken systems or disconnected infrastructure. There are yet another group of consumers of this type of individually driven narrative whose notions of “drive,” “personal ambition,” or “values” reinforce a separation between the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor.”

Experts at messaging and issue-framing rely upon research that shows the human mind is hard wired to attribute responsibility for the issues raised by Walter’s 20-mile trek. Our brains are subconsciously asking some variation on “Who is responsible?”

For some, the causal responsibility for the daunting 20-mile trek rests solely with the complex and individualized set of factors that are tied to specifically to Walter. For others, the question raises a broader set of considerations about the systems and structures that support, or hinder, mobility and access to employment and essential services. The logical companion question that frames the flip-side to how one reads this story is: “Who or what is responsible for remedying this problem?”

For those interested in dismantling traditional media narratives about the “deserving” poor, we must ask more of the coverage of stories like Walter’s.

We don’t know the full details of Walter’s current financial circumstances. And that’s not the point. If we can agree that getting bogged down in the individual components of one story distracts from a more productive conversation, the bigger question we should be asking is, “What kind of transportation infrastructure is needed to provide a ladder of opportunity for more of our neighbors?” This kind of question, whatever the specific issue, can help us create a region that ensures people who have become most disconnected from the region’s pockets of prosperity have the chance to belong, thrive, and contribute to their communities.

Over the last five years as a health insurance navigator as part of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, I’ve met with dozens of aspiring students (and non-students) young and old, of all ethnicities and life experiences, whose stories will get never media coverage or a cash windfall.

There is the young man whose life has been derailed because of a seizure disorder, who is reliant upon expensive medication that prevents him from fully using his automotive repair talents. I’ve met countless aspiring nurses who struggle to figure out how to balance their coursework and practicum in the hospital, with obligations to financially support themselves and/or their families. When they are told by school administrators that they shouldn’t be working while enrolled in a rigorous academic program, they are presented with a decision that effectively locks out most students from securing financial assistance through the Health Insurance Marketplace, as well as Medicaid (in a state like North Carolina that has not expanded the program’s eligibility).

When we stop to imagine the magnitude of the lives that are derailed or held back because of the disjointed and broken systems that have created some version a 20-mile walk in the darkness, it presents an opportunity for us to see beyond binaries of “deserving” and “underserving” poor.

To get there, we need coverage of essential stories like Walter’s to provide us with context and history that inform how to mobilize public attention and problem solving to address a community’s critical challenges. But it’s easy to get wrapped up in the details of Walter’s story. It’s much harder to ask the tough questions about the systems that support or inhibit opportunity. Once we ask those questions, there are tough decisions and changes that a community must embrace to ensure that the conditions that underlie Walter’s story are not the defining reality for most families with limited resources.

If we are going to get serious about the challenges to creating a more equitable South—one where young adults growing up in low-wealth families can thrive—we must create a narrative and a way of storytelling that acknowledges not only individual compassion and generosity (as well as “heart and grit”), but also raises the truly important questions about the broader set of conditions for every person who doesn’t find the spotlight.

For more on how system-level investments strengthen the infrastructure of opportunity, check out our new brief: Moving on Up: Transportation and Economic Mobility.

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!

Bootstraps vs. Blockades: Closing the Growing Racial Wealth Gap When Doing the “Right Thing” Doesn’t Work for Everyone

Conceptions of the American Dream often frame upward mobility as an ideal best accomplished through individual effort and perseverance. However, persistent racial disparities despite similar inputs demand a reconsideration of the story we tell ourselves about the degree to which success is available to everyone. A recent report using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances shows that, in 1983, white households held, on average, 5.3 times greater wealth than black households and 6.1 times greater wealth than Latino households. By 2013, those rates had increased to 7.7 and 6.7 times greater, respectively. This is a growth of 85 percent for white households, but only 27 percent for black households, and 69 percent for Latino households.

Source: CFED and Institute for Policy Studies. The Ever Growing Gap. August 2016

Source: CFED and Institute for Policy Studies. The Ever Growing Gap. August 2016

What is more striking, however, is that even if the wealth of black and Latino households had grown at the same rate as white households or even as drastically as those on the Forbes 400 list (a 736 percent increase in wealth between 1983 and 2013), their wealth would still not match the wealth held by white households. Black households would fall short by $181,000 and Latino households would fall short by $270,000. The report concludes that:

“If average Black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today. That’s just 17 years shorter than the 245-year span of slavery in this country.”

Catching Up: The Racial Wealth Gap is Unlikely to Narrow

In order to catch up to white families, black and Latino families would need to find a way to increase their wealth by over 700 percent. But traditional drivers of wealth creation do not produce as much value for people of color relative to their white counterparts (with the exception of Asians). For example, education has long been described as the great equalizer and, while there are significant economic returns to a college degree, there are large earnings and wealth gaps by race even among those who have earned postsecondary degrees. Similarly, homeownership is the largest expenditure for many families and represents a large portion of their total wealth, but non-whites are less likely to own their own home and, when they do, their property values are significantly lower. Given the extent to which homeownership is constrained by income and student loan debt (which is accumulated in larger amounts by non-white students), these racial disparities are not surprising.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The College Payoff. 2011

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The College Payoff. 2011

 

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. The Regional Economist. Unequal Degrees of Affluence: Racial and Ethnic Wealth Differences across Education Levels. October 2016.

Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. The Regional Economist. Unequal Degrees of Affluence: Racial and Ethnic Wealth Differences across Education Levels. October 2016.

Intergenerational transfers of wealth are another major contributor to wealth creation, but for black families, this strategy is much less successful. Black children born into moderately wealthy families (the middle wealth quintile), are more than twice as likely as white children to fall from the middle to the bottom quintile as adults (33 percent vs. 14 percent).

This trend is especially concerning in the South, with deep racial divides in economic opportunities and a long history of excluding racial minorities from sources of wealth accumulation. For example, the high degree of residential segregation found in the South further exacerbates the gap in wealth created by home ownership; neighborhoods with higher concentrations of non-white residents often have significantly lower property values. Coupled with lower rates of intergenerational income mobility, this suggests that an even greater challenge exists for black and Latino families hoping to build wealth and economic security.

New Outcomes Require New Systems

If black and Latino families are pursuing the same strategies for upward economic mobility as white families, why aren’t they reaping similar rewards? As we’ve written before, our history, particularly in the South, of economic dependence on forced and exploitative labor limited opportunities for wealth creation for those outside the economic elite, and particularly for people of color. Unequal investment in community resources that are beneficial to the entire population, like schools, transportation, and healthcare compounded these issues. This history and it’s continued legacy, apparent in current disparities, undermines a pillar of our proclaimed American ideal that upward economic mobility is available to all who are motivated, persistent, and hard-working. If we believe that closing the racial wealth gap is an issue best solved with strategies implemented at the individual level, what then, is a viable pathway for black and Latino families to catch up, if not through education, income, or homeownership? If we do not have a good answer to this question, we cannot continue to tell ourselves that the only thing standing between poverty and prosperity is a strong work ethic. Instead, we must commit to systemic changes at the institutional level, which focus on the racial disparities among major drivers of wealth creation and create an infrastructure of opportunity that is prosperous for everyone.

Land of the Free and Home of the Unequal Income

A new report released last month by the Economic Policy Institute displays data on the extensive income inequality across the United States. With the gap between the rich and the poor increasingly widening, traversing what CityLab best describes as an income “chasm” can be exceptionally difficult for those at the bottom of the income distribution. A person’s ability to improve her economic security is inextricably linked to income and as the rungs in the ladder move further and further apart, the more momentum required to make the leap and the higher the risk of never scrambling to the next step. The share of all income controlled by the top 1 percent of the U.S. population has steadily increased for the past thirty years, climbing to 21.1 percent, the highest concentration of wealth controlled by the top 1 percent since before the Great Depression.

How did this happen?

Since the 1970s, those already at the top have reaped the benefits of productivity gains, while those lower on the distribution didn’t, as worker wages didn’t keep pace with increasing productivity. Because of the difficulty of upward economic movement, those at the top often stay where they are—and so do those on the lower end.

Income inequality in the South

Inequality varies across the South and from state to state and continues to be a pressing issue for many Americans. The stickiness at the top and bottom is a national issue, but it’s particularly problematic in the South, even though what you need to make to be considered in the top 1 percent is much lower here than in other parts of the country.

NC Income Inequality

In North Carolina, Kentucky, and Mississippi, an income of less than $330,000 would, at minimum, put you in the top 1 percent, while in some New England states like Connecticut and New Jersey, the top 1percent starts at more than $600,000. New York has the highest rate of income inequality, with the top 1 percent making 45.4 times more than the other 99. That 1 percent collects almost a third of New York’s entire income.

So while the South’s income inequality might not be as drastic as other areas, it’s harder to move up here than anywhere else—in large part because of policies that have concentrated affluence and poverty in different places, limited investment in public education and infrastructure, and reinforced racial inequity that limits the mobility of a large portion of Southerners. The South is home to centers of economic and cultural growth, but also elevated levels of poverty and socioeconomic stagnation.

With the right tools and resources, Southern states can work to alleviate the burden of income inequity and make upward mobility an achievable reality. Financial empowerment efforts to address the racial wealth gap and local programs to build strong connections between education and career advancement are key to creating a region where people can thrive—no matter where they start.

Examining the Opportunity Landscape: LGBT Individuals and Upward Mobility

Since the N.C. General Assembly passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 on March 23, there have been multiple interpretations about how exactly the bill would change lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (as well as non-LGBT) rights, in the state at large and in local municipalities. One effect of HB2’s passing, however, has been clear and immediate: the state’s non-discrimination policies have come under sharper review. Indeed, the question of protecting LGBT-identifying individuals from discrimination in obtaining employment and receiving services is one that many Southern states, such as Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia have been grappling with, particularly in the past few weeks. North Carolina explicitly protects its residents against discrimination of any kind based on “race, religion, color, national origin, age, handicap or biological sex as designated on a person’s birth certificate.” The wording of HB2 suggests that local governments in the state must adhere to this same nondiscrimination policy—protecting no more and no fewer identities in the public sphere, and no fewer identities in the private sphere. This would mean, for example, that while we at MDC can (and do) protect against discrimination based on gender expression, the city of Durham now cannot. (Last week, Governor McCrory issued an executive order for the North Carolina state government to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy for state employees, in addition to race, religion, color, national origin, age, and handicap.)

In the Jim Crow South, for the state to require that municipalities protect all residents—in public and private spaces—from race discrimination was regarded by many as an infringement upon the white population’s freedom, but the work of the Civil Rights movement achieved on-the-books protections for race identity. This de-jure protection acknowledges that groups of people experience unique realities given race identity, and that these experiences, while based on constructed categories, result in real non-white disadvantage. Protections based on identity categories are intended to ensure that all people are treated with justice and dignity within our society. Although systemic racism still exists—in our educational , judicial and healthcare systems—we know that explicitly stated policies of nondiscrimination on the basis of race are integral to creating systems and institutions in which people are treated equitably. So if your employer is on record listing your race, national origin, or other protected identity as reason for firing you, that’s unlawful by North Carolina and federal standards. We are not, however, at the point of conferring this same de-jure recognition and protection to the LGBT community. Much of this stems from differing arguments about whether LGBT identities are morally acceptable. Because many legislators and voters do not see these identities as valid, explicit protections for the LGBT community are not prioritized.

Inherent in the absence of LGBT individuals as a protected class in both N.C. and many other states’ laws is an underlying argument that LGBT individuals do not experience a disadvantageous distance from opportunity based on these identities—that these individuals’ experiences of being non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual do not create real disadvantage.

Here are a few snapshots of data that shine light on the current challenges that LGBT individuals face in attaining the types of mobility we talk about here on the State of the South blog. According to a recent Williams Institute at the University of California study, 35 percent of LGBT adults live in the South—more than any other region in the U.S.

We’re always trying to refine our perspective to take in the full picture of what’s going on in the Southern landscape of equitable opportunity for upward social and economic mobility. We describe equitable mobility using three measures of well-being: thriving, belonging, and contributing. Upward mobility will be more likely when residents can, for example, find belonging in safe, affordable housing, thrive in equitable educational settings, and contribute to society in good health. If we only measure the well-being of people that our laws consider members of protected classes, we resign ourselves to the current state and operation of our systems and policies, making it easy to miss those on the margins—those for whom opportunity is particularly far off. Housing, education, and health, along with equal opportunity for employment and economic security, are necessary for an infrastructure of opportunity in which all young people and adults have an equitable opportunity to achieve upward social and economic mobility. But when a specific demographic of people in the U.S., many of whom reside in the South, are regularly and systemically barred from these building blocks to opportunity, the overall integrity and wellbeing of our society and economy suffers, and we betray our proud American belief in equal opportunity for all. These systemic barriers are not inevitable, but rather are created; therefore our systems’ outcomes are also not inevitable, but rather can be improved by building an infrastructure of opportunity complete with affirming and supportive pathways and policies.