Weathering the Storms: Economic & Environmental Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nclow4

Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

Source: Equality of Opportunity Project

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

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

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

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. 

Paying the Cost to Be the Boss: Tuition Rates, Pell Policy, and Postsecondary Access

We’ve all seen data that show education pays:

  • Median earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients working full time is $56,000–$21,000 more than the median earnings for high school graduates
  • Over 10 percent of high school graduates age 25 and older live in a household that relies on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, compared to 2 percent for those with at least a bachelor’s degree
  • Employers provided health insurance to 55 percent of full-time workers with high school diplomas, 69 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees, and 73 percent of those with advanced degrees.
  • Educational attainment increases a person’s chances at economic mobility. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 10 percent of children born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution who get a four-year college degree remain in that quintile as adults, compared to 47 percent of those without a four-year degree.

But we also know that education costs—and these costs keep going up. On average, national tuition and fees for four-year institutions have gone up 40 percent over the last ten years. Tuition increases are also the norm for community colleges, with a near 30 percent average increase over the same time period. Southern institutions are no different than the rest of the nation: Louisiana’s two-year and four-year institutions had the highest average increases over the last five years, at 64 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

Five-Year Change in Inflation-Adjusted Tuition and Fees (2011-12 to 2015-16)

2-year Institutions 4-year Institutions
Alabama 15% 21%
Arkansas 23% 14%
Florida 6% 15%
Georgia 19% 31%
Kentucky 9% 16%
Louisiana 64% 52%
Mississippi 11% 23%
North Carolina 19% 20%
South Carolina 20% 7%
Tennessee 17% 30%
Texas 16% 8%
Virginia 22% 23%
West Virginia 38% 25%

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

Our Southern flagship institutions are a part of this trend, too, making our most well-known state public universities less affordable for many students and their families.

2015-16 Tuition and Fees and Five-Year Change for Flagship Universities

2015-16 Tuition and Fees 5-Year Change (2011-12 to 2015-16)
University of Alabama $10,170 18%
University of Arkansas $8,522 15%
University of Florida $6,381 16%
University of Georgia $11,622 45%
University of Kentucky $10,936 16%
Louisiana State University $8,827 40%
University of Mississippi $7,444 25%
University of North Carolina $8,591 18%
University of South Carolina $11,482 7%
University of Tennessee $12,436 54%
University of Texas $9,830 -5%
University of Virginia $14,468 24%
University of West Virginia $7,632 29%

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

Colleges are quick to point out that students do not actually pay the sticker price; most students receive some type of financial aid (scholarships, grants, or loans). For low-income students, that financial aid may come in the form of Pell grants. The Federal Pell Grant program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students. For the 2015-16 academic year, the maximum Pell grant award is $5,730 and the average Pell grant award is $3,693. Except for the University of Florida, the average Pell award wouldn’t cover even half the costs for our Southern flagship institutions, making the possibility of attending these colleges unrealistic for some students. And while tuition costs are increasing, the Pell grant award isn’t. The maximum Pell grant award has decreased by $335 over the past five years.

For the 2013-14 academic year, there were nearly 8.7 million Pell recipients. Over 7 million of those Pell recipients came from families with incomes of $40,000 or less. Across the South, there were over 2.8 million Pell recipients, accounting for over $10 million in expenditures for Southern public, private, and proprietary institutions.

Pell has been considered the great equalizer in college affordability for low-income students. And the Obama administration is trying to make sure more students have access to an affordable education while also attempting to increase college completion rates. Last week, the Administration introduced two new proposals:

  1. Pell for Accelerated Completion would allow students to use Pell grants in the summer, making the program year-round. With the cost of tuition and fees, most students exhaust their Pell eligibility within the fall and spring semesters. This change would help students complete degrees faster by covering some of the costs of summer coursework. This program would add $1,915 to the Pell award for nearly 700,000 students.
  2. On-Track Pell Bonus would raise the maximum Pell grant award by $300 for students who take 15 credits per semester for the academic year. This initiative would help over 2.3 million students.

The US Department of Education press release states:

Today the Administration is calling for significant new investments in the federal Pell Grant program—the cornerstone of college affordability. The two new Pell proposals will help students to accelerate progress towards their degrees by attending school year-round and encourage students to take more credits per term, increasing their likelihood of on-time completion. In fiscal year 2017, these changes would mean an additional $2 billion in Pell Grants for students working toward their degrees.

The Obama administration faces an uphill battle in getting these proposals through Congress. But it is these types of innovative policy changes that could make a difference in postsecondary access and success for low-income students. As we move through this election cycle, pay attention to how presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional candidates talk about postsecondary costs and accessibility. It could make a difference for millions of Americans.

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.

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.