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.

North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity

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Since its inception, the State of the South blog has examined patterns of economic mobility and educational progress across the region, looking at what demography and geography say about who is being successfully prepared for educational and economic success. In a new report commissioned by the John M. Belk Endowment, we applied this lens to the state of North Carolina—a state that prides itself on being a beacon: from creating the nation’s first public university and one of its earliest community college systems to pioneering the concept of research parks that bridge education and industry.

But as we’ve seen across the South, far too many people in the state are struggling to make ends meet. Even in the most economically dynamic metros like Charlotte and Raleigh, people who grow up in low-income families are more likely to stay there as adults than almost anywhere else in the nation, and only small numbers make it to the middle- or upper-income levels despite thriving labor markets that seem full of opportunity. For young people born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution in Charlotte, for example, 38 percent will stay there as adults, another 31 percent will only move up one quintile, and just 4 percent will make it to the highest quintile.

Other statistics in the report are equally troubling:

  • Upward mobility in 22 of North Carolina’s 24 regions called “commuting zones” ranks within the bottom quarter nationally—and Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro rank in the bottom 10 of the nation’s 100 largest commuting zones.
  • While mobility varies depending on where people live, only about one-third of children born into North Carolina families making less than $25,000 annually manage to climb into middle and upper income levels as adults.
  • Latinos and African Americans are more likely than whites to be in poverty and attain lower levels of education, leaving them less prepared for high-skill, well-paying jobs—and those disparities will increasingly affect North Carolina’s economy as these populations grow to make up a larger proportion of the population.
  • A family of one parent and one child needs an income of $21 an hour to cover basic living expenses in North Carolina, yet only 26 percent of full-time jobs pay median earnings of that amount.

While there is significant variation in mobility levels across North Carolina, no part of the state meets the national average. These mobility patterns, paired with the rapidly changing demographics of the workforce, have significant implications for North Carolina. Gov. Pat McCrory’s postsecondary goal is to ensure that by 2025, 67 percent of North Carolinians will have education and training beyond high school. And there’s good reason for a goal like that: while 31 percent of North Carolinians who attain only a high school degree live in poverty, just 5 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree do. In order to meet the 2025 goal and the competitive demands of a 21st century economy with a skilled workforce, we need to reduce disparate outcomes in education along racial and ethnic lines.

These are not issues for individuals alone, but for communities and states: If North Carolina’s business and industry is to thrive, it is imperative that the citizenry have the skills and training necessary to thrive, too. Since this progress has to happen for individuals where they are—in our rural towns and our metropolitan centers—we profiled eight communities across the state, looking for evidence of vision and practices that generate forward motion for individuals and communities. Within these communities, we saw everything from a rural, four-county region with an intertwined history and economy but limited access to living-wage work with career potential, to a city in one of North Carolina’s fastest growing counties with a diverse manufacturing sector and a growing Hispanic population—and just about everything in-between. We saw efforts that were inspiring in both aspiration and implementation. For example:

  • In Pitt County, educational institutions and economic development leaders are investing together to address needs of both the working population and industries, like the recent collaboration between Eastern Carolina University and Pitt Community College: the Biopharmaceutical Workforce Development and Manufacturing Center of Excellence. The center will link education and industry to ensure that residents looking to enter advanced manufacturing in health sciences are trained in the specific skills needed in Pitt County’s growing economy, attracting both workers and new industry.
  • Wilmington’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Youth Violence used an assessment of local food insecurity, school dropouts, and gang violence, as well as a scan of community resources and organizations, to guide their decisions about how and where to act. The Commission of leaders from the faith-based community, private businesses, local nonprofits, and elected officials is charged with coordinating resources, with a focus on youth ages 0–24 and their families. The analysis informed the creation of a Youth Enrichment Zone, a geographical area in the city where they target programmatic activity and investment.

(Read the full report for stories from Guilford County; Wilkes County; Fayetteville; Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties; Monroe; and Jackson, Macon, and Swain and the Qualla Boundary.)

The causes of economic immobility do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of systems that can both ease and impede individuals’ access to opportunities. Improved access can often give them more control over economic outcomes for their families and, in many cases, break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. This requires a strong infrastructure of opportunity—a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connects individuals to postsecondary credentials and economic opportunity regardless of background. The creation of that infrastructure of opportunity is beyond the reach of any single institution to create: discrete pockets of excellence are insufficient for changing the trajectory of broad opportunity and improving education and employment outcomes at scale. To move from discrete programming to an aligned infrastructure of opportunity requires:

  • adoption of a guiding framework for communities to assess and create an action plan that is grounded in a common vision of economic productivity and advancement for the community and its people
  • design and implementation of research-based policies and programs that can be scaled for an entire population, hold high expectations for educators, employers, and the workforce
  • maintaining momentum through continuous improvement
  • commitment to providing adequate resources that support the common vision.

“One key piece of the solution,” says MDC President David Dodson, “is that corporations and businesses need to play a bigger role in working with educators, government and community organizations to ensure we are developing the talent our advanced economy needs, and guiding students toward better paying jobs that are in demand and can elevate their quality of life.”

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. 

Poverty, Diversity, and the Preschool Classroom

We are at a critical moment in early education. According to A Better Start: Why Diversity in Preschool Classrooms Matters, the recent surge in early childhood initiatives and the increasing diversity within the population of young children have yet to translate to diversity within the classroom. In order for all children to succeed regardless of race and class, we must see these investments through into the future.

In North Carolina, 14 percent of non-Hispanic white children under 6 live in poverty, compared to 44 percent and 46 percent of black and Hispanic or Latino children (US Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey). Even the overall success of investments and efforts to improve early childhood education programming and access has not addressed participation rates and quality of services along the aforementioned lines of economic and racial segregation. More must be done to incorporate diversity and instill equity into learning environments.

Child Pov NC

Source: CLASP calculations of American Community Survey data

Children’s peers are increasingly diverse. As the Center for Public Education explains, “Trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that soon there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the United States—no one group that makes up more than fifty percent of the total population.” Economic and racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools misrepresents the world these children will grow up in and it begins in U. S. preschools; only 17 percent of children are currently learning in racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.

Children, particularly children of color, are aware of—and thus affected by—race as early as age four. At this developmental stage, they ask questions to inform their own behaviors and learn from their environment to understand the way the world works, according to Louise Derman-Sparks. As A Better Start notes, “Children with disparate skills may learn from each other in the daily interactions and play activities that typically characterize the preschool day.” This kind of interaction enriches language and vocabulary development and, according to A Better Start¸ even promotes cross-cultural learning.   That’s why preschool is a significant supplement to the home environment of all children: though incoming math and language skills correlate to socioeconomic status (SES), children from low SES consistently perform better in math and language in the company of higher SES peers. A Better Start explains how classroom diversity can benefit higher SES, white students by reducing the prejudices and social isolation of children by race.

Getting that kind of head start on academic and social learning is a key foundation in an infrastructure of opportunity that works for children from day one. No matter how family demographics, ideologies, and resources may differ, parents share common values for their children. Providing families of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds access to the same high-quality early childhood education gives those children, full of potential, the opportunity to learn from each other rather than internalizing the “way the world works” through misleading cues like segregation.

MDC recently began work with the Kate B. Charitable Trust as the “activating agency” for Great Expectations, a major community-wide initiative of the Trust that aims to ensure that all young children in Forsyth County—with a special focus on those living in financially-disadvantaged families—meet age-appropriate developmental milestones in their first five years, enter kindergarten ready for school, and leave kindergarten fully ready for learning and life success.

The approach to Great Expectations centers on systems change with a strong commitment to creating ways to elevate the voices of low-SES parents and caregivers and parents/caregivers of color in the conversation about how to improve outcomes for their children. An improved system could increase availability and accessibility of high-quality child care classrooms for all families, regardless of SES and race. As more low-SES children and children of color enroll into childcare, more parents/caregivers will have the opportunity to share their vision for their child’s early education. Everyday experiences like story time and reading assignments could be transformed to show children their potential through stories from and about children from varying lifestyles and cultural backgrounds.

Through interactive exposure to diversity in play and in academic settings, children can turn their natural curiosity and sense of community into tools to form conceptions of equity—as they contextualize their identity with race and class. Doing so at an early age encourages the social responsibility and intuition children need to succeed and value the shared success of their peers—and that is essential to maintaining a productive and equitable society.