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.

Economic Insecurity in the South

Last week the Census Bureau released new data on income, poverty, health insurance, and inequality. Here are some quick insights on economic insecurity in the South.


The South has the lowest median household income in the nation, and black and Latino households have the lowest incomes in the region:

Median Household Income by region and race or ethnicity, 2014
All White, not Hispanic or Latino Black alone Asian alone Hispanic or Latino, any race
Northeast  $ 59,210  $ 65,762  $ 39,332  $ 78,408  $ 37,456
Midwest  $ 54,267  $ 59,171  $ 31,611  $ 62,480  $ 41,758
South  $ 49,655  $ 55,888  $ 35,306  $ 75,859  $ 42,091
West  $ 57,688  $ 63,869  $ 37,246  $ 74,718  $ 45,636
Source: Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement

When looking at the distribution of people in each region by national income quintiles, we see that the South is overrepresented in lower quintiles and underrepresented in upper income quintiles:

Percentage of people in each income quintile by region, 2014


(If the distribution of incomes in each region matched the national distribution, there would be 20 percent of people in each quintile.)

Given the region’s comparatively large population (around 37 percent of the US population) and the overrepresentation of low-income people, the South has 42 percent of U.S. people in the lowest income quintile. The South only has 34 percent of people in the highest income quintile. For young people starting out on the lowest rungs of the income ladder in the South, the chances of climbing it as an adult are smaller than in any other region.


The poverty rate is higher in the South than in other regions, and its geographic distribution is different. While the poverty rate is highest in cities in the three other regions, in the South, it is almost as high in non-metro areas as it is in cities:

Poverty rate by region and type of place of residence, 20142

Most Southern cities are less dense than the old, industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast. In sprawling metros, residential economic and racial segregation influences school quality, housing options, and transportation, and a disconnect often exists between low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and the location of good jobs. While the South’s rate of suburban poverty is lower than the poverty rate inside cities or in rural areas, it is growing, and many of our strategies to improve connections to opportunity often overlook suburban and exurban high-poverty neighborhoods.

Even in the South’s most prosperous cities, the chances of a low-income young person making it to a middle- or high-income career are depressingly low. The Raleigh, Charlotte, and Atlanta metros are ranked among the nation’s best for business, but they have some of the lowest levels of youth economic mobility. Concentrated poverty often exists side-by-side with concentrated affluence, and our systems of educational and economic opportunity often reflect those disparities in their resource allocation and quality.

Because low-income people of color are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than low-income white people, concentrated poverty helps to perpetuate racial inequities. The South has a high rate of poverty across racial and ethnic groups:

Poverty rate by race and ethnicity by region, 20143

Ideally, all young people would have equitable economic outcomes regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status, their neighborhood, or their race and ethnicity. As data show, however, race specifically remains a significant factor in the educational and economic outcomes of individuals across the South, and the city and neighborhood a young person grows up in has real consequences for her quality of life and chances of educational and economic success.

Health Insurance

The South has the highest rates of uninsured people in the U.S. for all racial and ethnic groups. One in four Hispanic or Latino people in the South are uninsured:

Percentage of people not covered by health insurance at any time during the year, 20144

As we said in a recent blog post: “the tide of healthcare coverage is rising, but individual social determinants of health (age, race, socioeconomic status, place, gender, disability status, etc.) often overlap to keep folks from being able to ’float‘ to the same level of access and quality.” Health care access is still determined by those social and economic factors, and people without coverage are often stuck in a cycle of economic insecurity and low mobility.


You might have heard us say this before: the South has the highest level of inequality in the nation, with the Northeast as a close second:

Gini Coefficient, 2014
All 0.480
Northeast 0.487
Midwest 0.461
South 0.488
West 0.474
Source: Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement

Low mobility is a problem on its own, but with a backdrop of rising income inequality and rising wealth inequality, the stakes are higher than ever, and your economic situation at birth is increasingly important.

Why the South Matters

The South has the highest rates of economic insecurity, and our young people also have the lowest chances of upward economic mobility in the nation. Unless we can find a way to shift the opportunity landscape in this region, we have little hope of changing these patterns. In the State of the South report, we proposed that the South must build an infrastructure of opportunity, or a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to postsecondary credentials and economic opportunity regardless of background.

The infrastructure of opportunity is about more than just lifting up young people who are growing up in poverty—it’s about investing in opportunity for all young people so the community has a strong foundation for long-term success. The places that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people 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.

MDC typically defines the South as 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.  The Census Bureau defines the South as those thirteen states plus Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Oklahoma.

Same as It Ever Was: Why Desegregation Still Matters in the South

It’s no secret: the quality of a child’s education is one of the most important factors in her future success. It’s also no secret that educational quality varies widely between schools and between districts, and that inequitable residential segregation and school funding formulas often concentrate students from low-wealth families in lower quality schools. The rate of poverty for public school students, like the overall poverty rate, differs across regions, states, and school districts, but it is generally higher in the South. EdBuild recently mapped the poverty rates in school districts nationally. In the map below, those areas in light blue are the ones where the student poverty rate is less than 10 percent and dark blue areas are more than 40 percent:

South school poverty

Source: EdBuild

School poverty varies widely district to district, and in many areas districts with high levels of poverty are located right next to ones with lower levels. In places where countywide school districts were never formed, like Birmingham, Ala., you see that intense contrast:

Birmingham school poverty

Source: EdBuild

The EdBuild map doesn’t tell us about the concentration of poverty at schools within districts, but other research does. In the South especially, school quality follows patterns of residential segregation by economic status and race. 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. In Durham County, N.C., where 61 percent of students are from low-income families, 36 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, while only 6 percent of white students do. In Jefferson County, Ala., where Birmingham is located, 65 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools, while only 2 percent of white students do.

While the South was less segregated than the rest of the nation during the 1980s and early 1990s, by 2009, Southern levels of segregation had risen quickly enough to catch up with the nation:

Segregation chart

Source: Southern Slippage report from UCLA

The problem is not really about the concentration of low-wealth students—it’s the concentration of wealth. In a new episode of This American Life that you absolutely need to listen to, Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that school desegregation cut the national achievement gap between black and white students in half in less than two decades (it has widened again since 1988, when segregation began to increase). She explains:

It’s important to point out that it is not that something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids. It’s not that suddenly a switch turns on and they get intelligence or wanting, you know, the desire to learn when they’re with white kids. What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids, and therefore, it gets them access to the same things that white kids get: quality teachers and quality instruction.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the importance of where a person lives to educational and economic success, but that point requires context: where you live is often not about choice. Intentional policies and practices actively created residential segregation by race. Sean Reardon of the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that middle-class black families tend to live in lower-wealth neighborhoods than low-income white families:

NYT neighborhood inc

Source: NYT

While the economic resources of families matter tremendously to educational success (there’s a linear relationship between income and who goes to college: with each increase in the family income distribution, the rate of college attendance increases the same amount), low-wealth young people in some areas are much more successful than low-wealth young people in others. The place a young person lives in and the resources available there determine the type of opportunities and the quality of the person’s preparation for them. That’s why, as Peter Edelman points out (h/t Dylan Matthews), reforms to improve and equalize school quality are a necessary complement to antipoverty efforts:

There is a bogus debate going on that pits school reform against antipoverty advocates. School reformers, wanting to squelch teachers and others who have said over the years that they cannot teach children who come to school with multiple problems that stem from poverty, say (correctly) that there are no valid excuses for failing to teach low-income children. They point (as they could not until quite recently) to multiple examples of schools that excel in teaching low-income children. But to the extent they say or imply that reducing poverty now is somehow less important than school reform, they overstate their point. Antipoverty advocates, for their part, in some instances downplay the independent efficacy of school reform.


The real answer, quite obviously, is that both school reform and serious antipoverty policies are vital. Better schools in inner cities, both charters and traditional public schools, are crucial to children’s possibilities of having a better life. But far more inner-city children will succeed in school if their parents have better jobs and higher incomes and if the communities in which they are growing up are healthy. There is no either-or here. Good schools are a must for inner-city children, but they cannot achieve maximum effect unless the schools strategy is part of a larger antipoverty approach.

It may seem like an obvious point that both are important, but in an era of scarce public investment, we often overlook it. Poverty is not an intractable problem, and students from low-wealth families are not doomed, but we talk as though they are. School desegregation both narrowed the achievement gap and dramatically improved the intergenerational mobility of black students in the South. We know that mobility is higher in places with quality schools and lower levels of residential segregation. In those places, both low-wealth and affluent students have better outcomes. Despite all this, there is very little acknowledgement of the importance of desegregating schools. “We have this thing that we know works, that the data shows works, that we know is best for kids, and we won’t talk about it,” says Nikole Hannah-Jones. “It’s not even on the table.”

Stop Worrying About the Nature of Poverty. Start Worrying About the Nature of Work.

David Brooks made quite a splash last week, as he loves to do, when he penned a column on “The Nature of Poverty,” stating:

[T]he real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

We’ve heard this before: the idea that the culture of people and communities in poverty is what’s keeping them there. That culture consists of attitudes, behaviors, and norms that, in Brooks’ view, add up to people preventing their own success. (Others have tackled what is problematic about this way of thinking.) As evidence for these cultural problems, Brooks claims that “federal antipoverty spending has exploded,” without making much of a dent in the official poverty rate.

His point is diminished by some pretty bad math, as Annie Lowrey explains: the spending tally Brooks is referencing includes government programs like Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit, and food stamps that are not counted as income when the poverty rate is calculated. And much of the spending he’s citing supports more than just low-income families, like grants to low-income school districts (not individuals), and Medicaid funds that support the disabled, as well as funds that go to doctors, hospitals, and administrators. Matt Bruenig dismantles Brooks’ argument further, showing poverty has fallen almost 40 percent in the past five decades when you do include things like food stamps and EITC as income. Bruenig also explains, “80%+ of the American poor in a given year are people who fall into vulnerable population categories: children, elderly, disabled, students, and those who faced at least one spell of involuntary unemployment during the year.” These vulnerabilities—of age, economic transition, and physical or mental health—aren’t ameliorated by ambition and a sense of responsibility.

But Brooks’ ideas about lack of ambition and responsibility just don’t make sense in the face of one big economic reality: there aren’t enough good jobs. And there certainly aren’t enough good jobs in low-income communities. With increasing economic segregation in our sprawling Southern metros, it’s difficult for low-income people to physically get to where the jobs are in general. In an earlier post, we talked about how our labor market extends benefits and protections only to the types of occupations we value—and the determination of which occupations are valued is based largely on cultural assumptions about who works those jobs and what kind of treatment they deserve. If we focus only on career pathways into “good jobs,” then we ignore the concrete and realistic steps that could be taken to improve the quality of all jobs.

Maureen Conway of The Aspen Institute addressed this issue in a Time column this week:

One factor glaringly absent from all the celebratory discussions of education is the changing condition of work. The reason it remains a good idea for most individuals to at least try to get a college degree is not because today’s jobs require college level skills. Rather, it’s because employment options available to people without a college degree are terrifyingly awful. And in a country that purports to value work, we ought to consider why we are so unwilling to pay for it. We should ask ourselves why the people who care for our children and elderly parents or grandparents, the people who prepare and serve us food, the people who clean our homes and secure our office buildings — why do all of these people deserve poverty-level wages?

There’s a lot of work that we aren’t willing to pay much for. A surprisingly large proportion of full-time workers in the U.S. don’t currently make $15 per hour (which, by the way, is still less than a living wage for one parent with one child in every Southern state):

Share of full-time workers earning at least $15/hour by race/ethnicity: United States


In most Southern states, it’s even lower. Take North Carolina:

Share of full-time workers earning at least $15/hour by race/ethnicity: North Carolina


Conway calls us to focus on the quality of all jobs in addition to strategies to improve educational attainment:

It is undeniable that investing in education is a good thing. But if we want the masses to get “good jobs” so they can support themselves through their work — and not just the lucky few who can get ahead of their peers through education — then we need to look much more carefully at the nature of work and the kind of opportunity a job offers. Businesses have choices about the ways they structure work just as surely as individuals have choices about pursuing education. Our society is unlikely to address the inequality we face by encouraging an arms race among people desperate to gain access to shrinking opportunities for decent work. We must address the dynamics that encourage companies to extract from, rather than invest in, their employees. We need to raise our expectations of the rewards of work and improve the quality of opportunities available to people willing to work hard. If we want people to climb the economic ladder through education, then we need to ensure that ladder rests on a stable foundation of work that pays enough to live on.

Brooks is worried about a culture that doesn’t value hard work and responsibility. Well, so am I. But where Brooks is worrying about the culture of low-income people, I’m worrying about our broader American culture that is content to lay blame on the poor while devaluing so many jobs. He’s worried about a social psychology that discourages responsibility and future-oriented thinking, and so am I: we’re discouraging the responsibility employers have to their employees and making short-sighted decisions about where to invest or who is worth our investment. If we follow Brooks’ logic, our economic and political systems are blameless. That unwillingness to consider structural and systemic reforms, in favor of faulting individual choice and community culture, means poverty will remain high, mobility will remain low, and inequality will rise. And that should worry all of us.