The study data paints a surprising picture of economic mobility in Mecklenburg
This map shows that 7.1% of black residents who grew up in poverty in Mecklenburg County moved into the top quintile based on individual income by their mid-30s. The median of all counties is 7%. Counties in orange and red have less mobility.
This story is part of a series about efforts to improve equity in Charlotte. It is published in partnership with WFAE.
The 2014 study that indicated the Charlotte area had the worst economic mobility among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas has been updated, with new information that provides insight into why Charlotte ranked so low. It also contains startling data that shows Mecklenburg County isn’t as bleak as previously thought.
The original Land of Opportunity Study, led by a team from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, tracked the tax returns of 40 million children and their parents. The study looked at children born in the early 1980s to see how they were doing in their early thirties by looking at tax returns up to 2012. The main question: how many children who grew up in the poverty moved to the top quintile or top 20%?
The report found Charlotte’s commuting zone, which includes three counties in South Carolina and six in North Carolina, was down. It has become a rallying cry here for government and civic leaders, who have been embarrassed by our poor performance. How could a city with so much apparent wealth fare so badly with its most vulnerable residents? Charlotte leaders responded with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, which made 91 recommendations to improve economic mobility here.
Since then, the study has been updated with tax returns up to 2015. And the same research team that did the original study compared the new information with census data to see how different groups racial and ethnic backgrounds did, as did immigrants and native-born residents. – information that was not available in the 2014 conclusions.
In the Charlotte area, there is more mobility when looking specifically at Mecklenburg County as opposed to the more rural counties that were included in the original study, such as Chester County, South Carolina. And Mecklenburg ends better when you look at mobility based on individual incomes instead of household incomes. The original 50 by 50 study focused on household income.
Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution studies economic mobility. She said she remembered seeing Chetty’s economic mobility color-coded map for all races and ethnicities.
“The first time I saw Chetty’s map – You looked south and all of south looked terrible,” she said. “And the first time I saw that, I thought it must have been about race.”
She said the updated data is important because it helps cities understand which groups are lagging behind.
For example, the original study gave high marks to less diverse areas like Pittsburgh, while areas like Charlotte that are more diverse ranked lower. Pittsburgh’s commuting zone — a census designation of connected counties — had the second highest economic mobility in the study, but when you look closely at how different racial groups behave in Pittsburgh, there’s a wide disparity. .
If you look closely at the original counties of Charlotte and Pittsburgh, people who grew up poor and blacks in Pittsburgh had a harder time moving forward than people who grew up poor and blacks in Charlotte.
For example, in Mecklenburg County, 7.1% of black children whose parents were in the 25th percentile moved into the top 20% based on individual income. If you look at all the counties in the study, the national median is 7%. In Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, it’s 6.7%.
The new data also shows that Mecklenburg County’s mobility rate for low-income black residents has one of the highest rates of people moving up and down among southern urban counties based on individual income. It is greater than or equal to many of the larger urban counties that were part of the 50 of 50 ranking. They include the home counties of Nashville and Atlanta, and several counties in Florida, such as Jacksonville Homes , Orlando and Tampa.
The mobility rate in Mecklenburg County is higher than counties that are home to Austin, Texas, and several Midwestern cities, such as Cleveland, Dayton, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. However, Mecklenburg’s mobility rate is lower than that of counties with cities such as Los Angeles County, 10%; Denver, 8.8%; Houston, 9.1%; Washington, DC, 14%; and Philadelphia, 9.4%.
The updated study said the average individual salary of black residents who grew up poor in Mecklenburg is $20,000. The national median for all counties in the study for low-income black children is also $20,000.
Mecklenburg’s $20,000 salary is equal to or better than counties home to Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas and several Midwestern cities, but trails places like San Francisco ($23,000); Seattle ($21,000) and Minneapolis ($22,000).
In Mecklenburg County, low-income Latinos also fared better than elsewhere. Ten percent of low-income Latinos moved into the top 20% based on individual income. The median for all counties in the study was 9.6%. The individual income of all low-income Latinos who grew up in Mecklenburg — including those born outside the United States — was $25,000, while the median for all counties was $24,000.
For low-income white residents, 12% moved into the top 20%, which was the same as the median for all counties in the study. The mobility of white residents in neighboring counties was much lower. Rowan County was 5.5%; Anson County was 6.3%; Lancaster County was 5.7%.
“I guess you’re celebrating small wins,” Central Carolinas Urban League manager Teddy McDaniel said. “But let’s come back to this data.”
He is concerned about the different mobility rates between different races in Mecklenburg County. Again, 7.1% of low-income black residents made the top income support, while 10% of Latinos and 12% of white residents did.
This gap between white and black residents is smaller than many cities in the 50 out of 50 out of 50 rankings, but it’s still a sizable gap.
“You wanted to be in a place that feels fair and equitable and a place where people from all walks of life can get the most out of what they want,” he said.
Mobility based on household income
When you go from individual incomes to household incomes, Mecklenburg County does worse. Only 2.6% of low-income black households in the county reach the top 20%. The median for all counties in the study is 3.3%.
It’s the same or more than a few counties that are home to cities like Nashville, Jacksonville, as well as places in the Midwest, like Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.
And household income is also much lower compared to other counties. The national median household income of black residents who grew up in poverty is $24,000 a year. It’s $21,000 in Mecklenburg County.
Brown University economist John Friedman, who worked on the study, said one reason for Charlotte’s gap between individual and household incomes is low marriage rates.
In Mecklenburg County, 22% of low-income residents were married by age 35. The median of all counties in the study is 42%.
Marriage rates are lower in cities than in rural areas. But Mecklenburg’s marriage rate is lower than several counties, including those home to Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Raleigh, Miami and Boston.
Sawhill of the Brookings Institute said individual incomes simply cannot compete with a two-person earning household.
“Even if the second earner is earning minimum wage, you could earn $15,000 on a minimum wage job,” she said. “We’re not going to find a government program that gives families an extra $20,000 a year.”
Despite new data that paints a slightly better picture of mobility here in some cases, Charlotte’s 50 out of 50 ranking has prompted the city and county to mobilize resources to improve economic mobility.
United Way of Central Carolinas director Laura Yates Clark said the city might not have worked hard.
If “we had been 46 years old? 47? I do not know. I don’t know if we would have had the same kind of response,” Yates said.
Without access to important resources such as transportation, affordable housing and early childhood education, communities in Charlotte struggle to achieve socio-economic progress in the city. What progress has Charlotte made since starting the Chetty study in 2014?
On March 8, Charlotte Talks and the WFAE Race and Equity team will present a public conversation, “EQUALibrium: A Conversation About Race and Equity in Charlotte.” Mayor Vi Lyles and others will speak about efforts in Charlotte to improve racial equity and mobility. The discussion will focus on where we are and how much work we still have to do to achieve these goals. The conversation begins at 7 p.m. at Project 658 in Charlotte.