Closing the Opportunity Gap in Vance County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abby Parcell contributed to this post. 

Your Daughter’s Teacher Needs a Raise

The beginning of the year always makes me revisit my annual budget, evaluate my savings plan, and start to think about taxes. As I think about the additional amount of money I still need to save for my family to be comfortable in the future, I am reminded that there are many people I encounter on a daily basis that are not as fortunate. When it comes to having enough income to cover my basic expenses, I’m lucky. I can pay my bills and still save for my family’s future—assuming we don’t have any unexpected medical expenses that deplete our savings. My job pays me a family-sustaining wage, but what about the people I depend on to take care of my family and me on a daily basis?

Last year, Fortune reported that more than 42 percent of U.S. workers hold jobs that pay a low wage. The article assumes any job with wages below $15 an hour is a low-wage job. The $15 an hour rate is based on national studies which have calculated an equilibrium where wages are high enough to lift families out of poverty, but still low enough to not result in massive job losses. In North Carolina, the percent of jobs paying a low wage is 48.7 percent.

We often associate jobs that pay low wages in our economy with low skilled or unskilled labor. Many of us think of fast food jobs and teenagers. However, many of the jobs that pay a less than what is needed to maintain a normal standard of living are the very jobs our society depends on to take care of our family members and teach our children. As the Fortune article points out, low-wage jobs are held disproportionately by women, people of color, and persons 20 years of age or older.

Is $15 an hour enough?

Another definition of low-wage job is one that pays less than a living wage, which is defined as the amount of money a person must earn to cover their family’s basic living expenses. In 2014, MIT and the Living Wage Project calculated the living wage for North Carolina to be $10.53 for one person, living alone. The addition of children obviously increases a family’s expenses. Hence, one adult with a one child will need to make $44,990 a year ($21.63 an hour) to break even every month. This amount does not include emergency savings or funds to splurge on birthday and holiday gifts. Overall, 72 percent of our state’s workforce makes less than $44,990 a year. Here are the living wage calculations for other family configurations:

NC Living Wage

Many of the jobs that pay less than a living wage typically require postsecondary credentials and are occupations that are growing in our economy:

NC Occupations Wages

Half of the preschool teaching jobs in the state earn less than $11.35 an hour. At this wage rate, someone working as a preschool teacher, with a child at home, would not be able be able to cover his basic living expenses. He would not be able to save for his family’s future, and he is probably asking himself a different set of questions at the beginning of the year. All of the jobs listed in the table above require some kind of investment in postsecondary training; the very investment that is touted for getting ahead and securing employment that leads to economic security. But the investment can’t just be on the worker’s side of the equation. We have to invest in making those jobs that require skill and training—and there aren’t many jobs that don’t—quality jobs that provide wages commensurate with the training and value they bring to individuals and communities. Our society is dependent on a host of skilled labor to take care of our families, so we need policies and wage rates that help them take care of theirs.

Poor Indicators: Testing Our Achievement Assumptions

On this blog and around the office at MDC we talk a lot about economic mobility and the lack of opportunity for upward mobility for many low-income young people. In one of our recent meetings on this topic, I mentioned that it is easy to falsely conflate the low-income student population with the low-achieving student population. Just as there are high-achieving wealthy students, there are also high-achieving, low-income students. A recent longitudinal study from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that high-achieving low-income students are as likely as affluent students with below average test scores to complete a college degree.

This conversation reminded me a study I read years ago about gifted students living in poverty. The authors of the study followed a young, gifted student named Jermaine who lived in a poor county in Alabama. In the study community, “Pine Grove,” all students are African-American and 98 percent of them are eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Jermaine’s school had a leaky roof, no gym, and no art or music rooms. The school district was consistently on the list of schools to be taken over by the state’s department of education. The names of the people and places studied were changed to protect the participants’ identities, but this study could be talking about any number of communities across Alabama. Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the nation; one in four children there lives in poverty.

The authors followed Jermaine for the span of three years, his 3rd– to 5th grade years. They reviewed a portfolio of Jermaine’s work, observed Jermaine in and out of school, and corresponded with Jermaine and his teacher, Teresa Beardsley. When the study first began, Jermaine lived with his mother, older brother and sister, and an aunt. His family lived in a house, but in his community, homes were inferior to trailers that came with central heat and air conditioning, furnishings, and appliances. Jermaine knew his family was considered to be in the lowest rung of the social circle in Pine Grove: other students had expensive sneakers, while Jermaine’ mom gets his sneakers from Bargaintown. Jermaine got teased a lot.

Jermaine’s performance in school was considered “remarkable”; he was creative, had an advanced vocabulary, and very high achievement scores. However, his intelligence was not cultivated at school; he was bored and became a discipline problem. Administrators and teachers alike described him as “bad”; someone to “keep an eye on.” His teacher, Ms. Beardsley, found that she often had to serve as an advocate for Jermaine.

His mother did not play an active role in his schooling, but he had two uncles from Detroit who brought him toys and paid for his uniforms when he needed them. Jermaine was supported by friends’ families and the football coach who, recognizing the young boy’s intelligence, made Jermaine his starting quarterback. Jermaine gained friends by sharing the books he received from his uncles and, of course, the acclaim that comes with being the school’s quarterback. He dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but explained that he wanted to be a Hollywood film producer first. We never find out if he achieves this dream.

Even though Jermaine’s school offered opportunities for athletics, they did not offer access to gifted and talented programs or other programs that could have nurtured Jermaine’s creativity. Study authors detailed that rural, gifted students face without access to these types of activities:

…within rural school districts acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change made it difficult to initiate new programs for gifted students. Along with limited financial resources for programs perceived as benefiting a few students, rural schools were unable to provide adequate specialized teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and curriculum specialists to assist in providing appropriate services for high-ability youngsters. (p. 202)

Inadequate funding for poor, rural school districts perpetuates the acceptance of the status quo. In July 2015, EdBuild released a map of student poverty rates for 13,000 school districts. They found in many cases, “school districts of dramatically different income levels are next-door neighbors, or even sit, island-like, within one another.” And in many Southern school districts, there is significant variation in student poverty rates between schools. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.

I’m glad that Jermaine’s story has remained with me all these years. It puts a face to all those data points. Jermaine is a creative, caring young man who wants to thrive despite his circumstances. As we try to figure out solutions to improve educational opportunity for low-income students, it’s important that we don’t forget there are thousands of other students like Jermaine. Poor students can be smart, too, but our educational system is still failing too many of them.

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.