We Need to Look Forward: Shared Mobility Challenges & Potential in Urban and Rural NC

monroe-connection

These Monroe community work session participants say #NCMobilityMatters because connection = success!

Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina and how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that intergenerational poverty is particularly dire in the South compared to other U.S. regions. We’ve documented several community work sessions discussing the findings from that report here on the blog. As we crossed all of North Carolina’s prosperity zones, we saw unique challenges facing rural and metro areas, but we also witnessed similarities.

Take the community work sessions that were held in Monroe and Wilkesboro. Monroe is a growing city, part of Union County (which has a significant rural population), on the edge of the Charlotte metropolis. Wilkes County is a rural county on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its population spread across 757 square miles. But in both places, we were hosted by a North Carolina community college and the local Chamber of Commerce served as a key partner. One place is trying to find a way to restore or reimagine a manufacturing economy; the other is looking for ways to encourage participation in the advanced manufacturing opportunities that exist. Both are grappling with limited public transportation systems and affordable housing options that would ease the burden on families trying to make ends meet and get ahead.

In each community work session, we’ve asked people to share their mobility stories. We ask them to think about how their starting point affected where they ended up, and to consider what people or policies or simple serendipity cleared a path or propelled them to their current situation. The same elements showed up in Wilkes County and in Monroe (and nearly every other work session):

  • Adults—often educators—who “believed in me”
  • Personal drive
  • Military service and the GI bill
  • Education (and related scholarships, including athletic opportunities)
  • Public policies (like war bonds) that allowed people to save and transfer wealth

The headwinds faced were also similar, including public policies that were not available because of discriminatory practices. These shared experiences are a great example of how systems and aspirations intersect. In order to make the elements of an infrastructure of opportunity pervasive and available to more people across North Carolina, communities must find ways to cultivate aspirations and institutions that are launching pads for the enormous potential that exists in our residents. It may seem a daunting challenge, but as Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College, said “we’re not afraid of a fight and we’re ready to move forward, ready to tackle the problems we have. We’re ready to get about the business of solving those problems. We need to look forward.”

Redefining Collaboration: Communities in Eastern N.C. Come Together to Work Together

If you’ve been keeping up with us here on the State of the South blog, you probably know that we’ve been traveling across North Carolina since August facilitating community work sessions with the John M. Belk Endowment and local institutional partners. These work sessions were sparked by a report that MDC and the Belk Endowment released earlier this year titled North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity, examining how North Carolina reflects recent research showing that the South has the lowest rates of economic mobility for young people in the nation.

To find out how these data play out in real places in North Carolina, we talked with leaders from eight communities in the state about how residents and institutions are confronting slim odds for upward mobility. Now we’re reconvening those same leaders and more to reflect on the data as a cross-sector group and to lay the groundwork for planning next steps.

#NCMobilityMatters to Lori Preast and Rachel Bridgers of Pitt Community College because equity is not the same as equality

Lori Preast and Rachel Bridgers (Pitt Community College) share why mobility matters to them.

In mid-November, two MDC staff members had the privilege of traveling to the eastern part of the state to hold two of these work sessions: one in Brunswick County, including leaders from New Hanover County; and one in Beaufort County, including leaders from Pitt and Martin counties, as well. Though distinct in geography and history, these regions in the southern and northern parts of the state have a lot in common—people in leadership who care about their community and are striving for deeper cross-sector coordination; a mixture of urban and rural areas, each with unique needs; and strong higher education institutions that are determined to expand access to all residents in their service areas.

Those of us at MDC who had the opportunity to speak with a variety of leaders in both communities couldn’t help but notice a similar challenge, followed by a similar proclamation, in both regions: Fragmented work makes for fragmented funding, which stalls strategic investment that could move a community forward as a collective group. Both sets of leaders bemoaned that all too often, groups of leaders get together, each say their bit about the work they’re doing, and then go back to their corners without having really changed much about their way of working. Even in communities where there is some cross-over, it can be difficult to create deep collaboration that reaches every system or institution at every level. In fact, a participant at the Brunswick County session raised an issue with the word “collaboration” itself: one definition of the word refers to how an enemy might gather information from their opposing side. Though malicious intent doesn’t apply, this sense of working on separate “teams” is all too common as communities strive in silos to achieve change and growth.

But both of these work sessions were different. Inspired by sobering data showing that nearly 70 percent of children born into poverty in both the southeast and northeast regions in North Carolina will stay at the very bottom or rise only one income quintile as adults, leaders from these eastern counties were ready to put their heads together to find a new way of pooling their resources. By aligning their efforts and working to fill gaps in resources as a community team, in which all players are working towards the same goal, these regions can start to build an infrastructure of opportunity in which the systems and factors that influence a person’s path to success are strengthened and aligned to make sure no one sees inequitable barriers to opportunity.

Big thanks to the caring and insightful leaders from New Hanover, Brunswick, Pitt, Martin, and Beaufort counties for two great conversations this November on why #NCMobilityMatters! It’s hard to believe we only have on more community work session to go—we’ll see you Dec. 13, Fayetteville!

Cultivating Eagerness: Economic Mobility in the North Central Prosperity Zone

High school students piled out of a school bus while another student came out of his car in a suit. From my first few minutes on campus I could tell that Vance-Granville Community College was a place of eagerness. Inside the Civic Center was no different: leaders from Vance, Granville, Warren, Franklin, were all gathered and eager to continue making positive changes in their communities. These leaders represented nonprofit organizations, economic development, the K-12 public education system, higher education, and philanthropy with the ultimate goal of addressing the challenges of economic mobility in their respective counties. And thanks to the wonders of technology, we had a similar group from Nash County gathered to participate at Nash Community College. These counties are all part of the North Central Prosperity Zone (an NC Department of Commerce classification).

Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina. During a convening on October 17, we had the chance to see how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that upward economic mobility is particularly low in the South compared to other U.S. regions. Researchers looked at economic mobility in “commuting zones” (regional economies that share a labor force and sometimes cross county or state lines). The three commuting zones that encompass these counties are Wilson, Henderson, and Raleigh. Out of 729 zones they rank 13th, 23rd, and 85th, respectively, with #1 being the least mobile.

In the Henderson commuting zone (Vance and Warren counties), 38 percent of children born to parents in the bottom income quintile will stay there as adults. Only 26 percent will rise to the middle or upper middle income quintile; a meager 4 percent have a chance to make it to the highest income quintile. The figures are similar in the Wilson and Raleigh commuting zones.

Henderson Commuting Zone: Chances a child born in a given income quintile will move to another as an adult Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Henderson Commuting Zone: Chances a child born in a given income quintile will move to another as an adult
Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

In the face of these bleak data emerged that sense of eagerness I witnessed in the parking lot. Attendees reflected on the idea of the American Dream–and The Jefferson’s theme song–and how that could be a reality for their residents. Leaders were passionate in sharing both strengths and challenges their communities faced.

Community leaders were well-aware of all of the outstanding resources and programs that were helping residents move on up, including: a brand new performing arts center, a strong Chamber of Commerce, a committed community college, internship, CTE and STEM programs for high schoolers, and youth leadership for grades 8-10 that connects students with small business opportunities.

Equally important was their cognizance of forces that were impeding residents’ upward mobility such as limited industry participation, substance abuse, limited role models for youth, teens balancing work and school, higher standards for entry-level positions for higher paying jobs, and discrepancies in communication about opportunities available to different youth.

With the knowledge of what is working for and against their mobility odds, leaders put their minds together to engineer ways to build an infrastructure of opportunity (or the systemic factors that can be aligned to work more effectively in favor of expanding education and living-wage prospects for residents). A theme revolving around youth, innovation, and inclusion quickly emerged. Leaders in these counties plan on strengthening STEM programs, advertising the “Vance Guarantee” and CTE to middle school students, emphasizing “trauma health” without shame, building on youth’s interest in technology, focusing on those furthest from opportunity, and learning from the past.

Creating an infrastructure of opportunity is made possible when communities collectively digest data, understand the challenge, engage in dialogue about the set of conditions working for and against their shared goals for mobility, and respond accordingly and collaboratively. These counties are off to a good start!

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.

Fuel for the Future: Food Insecurity Threatens Long-term Mobility

Many of us think of food as soon as we think of home: traditional dishes, daily staples, favorites from childhood. Our ties to those conceptions of home and nourishment develop at an early age, when breastfeeding transitions to—ideally—a nutritious, balanced diet that leads to positive, long-term health behaviors, outcomes, and relationships with food. But it’s difficult to develop healthy habits and foundational memories when nourishing meals are hard to come by. That’s often the case for households where lack of income and disconnection from food production and supply put sufficient food out of reach. At the same time, through collaborative community efforts in both rural and urban food deserts, there are opportunities to sustain stores that carry fresh produce and local foods; to give children and their families a taste of what fresh food is like and where it comes from; and to provide education, empowering households to access healthy food and prepare balanced meals.

Shifts in unemployment, inflation, and the price of food are directly related to the prevalence of food insecurity. Transportation and education, essential to economic mobility and scarce in households of low socioeconomic status, are also key to connecting caregivers to the affordable, quality food they need to support a household. It follows that in the wake of the Great Recession, food insecurity rose significantly in rural and urban communities throughout the United States; more recently, with relatively increased economic prosperity, there has been some decline in those numbers. The USDA characterizes households along a continuum of high to very low food security; households that are food insecure fall into these two categories:

  • Low food security: Households reduced the quality, variety, and desirability of their diets, but the quantity of food intake and normal eating patterns were not substantially disrupted.
  • Very low food security: At times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake reduced because the household lacked money and other resources for food.

Morgan Wittman Gramann, managing director of NC Alliance for Health, writes, “Children across North Carolina are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and other chronic diseases because they lack access to healthy, nutritious food. Families want to be healthy, but too many simply have nowhere to buy affordable lean meats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.” Here’s what food insecurity looks like in North Carolina counties:

North Carolina Food Insecurity Rates Source: Feeding America

North Carolina Food Insecurity Rates
Source: Feeding America

North Carolina Child Food Insecurity Rates Source: Feeding America

North Carolina Child Food Insecurity Rates
Source: Feeding America

The multi-generational implications of food insecurity compound the need for serious consideration of food systems and culture in the United States. Affordable, nutritious foods are accessible in grocery stores and supermarkets, but low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas throughout the United States have few to zero grocery stores and supermarkets.  Almost 350 communities in the state of North Carolina are USDA-classified food deserts, in which residents must travel over 10 miles in rural areas and one mile in urban areas in order to reach a grocery store. Rural communities are particularly vulnerable, according to the Food Literacy Center: the South continues to have the highest poverty rate among people in families living in rural areas, at 23 percent. Seventeen percent of rural households are food insecure—an estimated 3.3 million.

Though it is a daunting challenge, community-based programs, policy reform, and legislation combine food access and education, thus expanding opportunity for families, children, and the community at large. At the national level, in 2020, for the first time ever, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in the USDA 2014 Farm Bill will include recommendations for birth to age two—supporting healthy eating early in a child’s life that can be sustained over a lifetime. And the SNAP program (commonly known as Food Stamps) requires education programs that include individual or group-based nutrition education and health promotion intervention strategies. Here in North Carolina, Healthy Places NC, a place-based initiative of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, is aimed at improving the long-term health and overall quality of life for people in rural areas of North Carolina, like Rockingham County, through projects and partnerships. There, Rockingham County Partnership for Children collaborates with Rockingham Community College to host the Harvesting Health program. Families explore the connections between local food production, healthy lifestyles, and nutrition. The program gives children hands-on opportunities to taste locally grown food, cook with fresh produce, and increase understanding of healthy eating through health and wellness workshops. For more on their work thus far, and future plans within the community, see their feature in the December 2015 Healthy Places NC Community College Learning Network newsletter.

Homes, schools, and communities share in the responsibility of cultivating skills and illuminating opportunity in order to fuel a sustainable future for children—which includes their ability to navigate our complex food systems. To address food insecurity requires addressing the conditions that perpetuate poverty—transportation, education, and employment. We must prioritize the supplemental education, sustainable infrastructure, and healthful behaviors that will give the next generation a solid foundation for economic mobility, longevity, and the energy—fueled by healthy food!—to contribute to a vibrant South.