Where Children Rarely Escape Poverty

Charlotte, North Carolina, ranks low on upward mobility, but the city is trying to make the American Dream more accessible.

Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Charlotte, North Carolina, wants to change its status as one of the worst places in the United States for poor children to have a shot at getting ahead as adults. If the city succeeds, its efforts may offer a roadmap for other major metro areas gripped by barriers such as concentrated poverty and school segregation.

Improving schools, particularly how they serve poor black and Latino children, will be a crucial piece in the fight to reduce inequity. Right now, the percentage of children in Charlotte attending schools where at least half the students are poor varies significantly by race. While just 23 percent of white students in Charlotte attend majority-poverty schools, 77 percent of black students and 80 percent of Latino students go to these schools, according to an original analysis of federal data provided by the National Equity Atlas, a joint project of PolicyLink and the University of Southern California's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. The discrepancy is significant, because high-poverty schools tend to have fewer resources, less-qualified teachers, and weaker parent-volunteer networks than affluent schools. Add to this the fact that black and Latino children in Charlotte are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty and to experience a range of barriers to economic mobility, and the scope of the problem—and, by extension, the complexity of any solution—balloon.

“The school didn't create [the problem], nor should you expect the school to solve those problems, but it is the place where segregation, and community stress, and toxicity, show up, and the school has to deal with that,” said Brian Collier, the executive vice president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, a partner on a citywide task force aimed at increasing opportunities for poor children.

Groundbreaking research, much of it done by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty, several years ago ranked Charlotte dead last in an analysis of where the country’s 50 largest cities stand on upward mobility for children. A child raised in the bottom fifth income level in Charlotte has just a 4 percent chance of rising to the top fifth. That surprised and horrified city officials, who convened the task force to address the finding. The group isn’t set to release recommendations until later this year, but several points have emerged already, among them that for any real improvement to take root, the city must address inequities in access to opportunity and resources at the school, housing, and workforce levels.

“When Raj Chetty released the work around social economic mobility and opportunity, that’s when it hit home for everyone that the place we thought of, Charlotte, being a place of opportunity, and a place where people move to for advancement, and for a great place for their family, it hit home that maybe people move here for opportunity, but the people who are born here, especially those from the low-income neighborhoods, don’t have that same level of opportunity,” Collier said.

Relying on listening tours and conversations with local residents, as well as input from national poverty experts such as Richard Reeves, the task force has held meetings to discuss everything from family structures and unintended pregnancy, to how businesses hire and where people live. Chetty’s research suggests that when low-income families live in mixed-income neighborhoods, the potential for upward economic mobility improves dramatically. But convincing city residents to agree and passing laws that foster such integration is tricky. While Collier hopes that pride and a desire not to be at the bottom of the pack when it comes to mobility will spur residents to action, he acknowledges the challenge in getting the necessary buy-in.

Concentrated poverty, and segregated neighborhoods and schools, have been the main points of discussion, however. According to the data from the National Equity Atlas, about 74 percent of Charlotte’s 121,260 students are students of color. More than 60 percent of Charlotte’s students attend schools where half of the children are eligible for free-or-reduced-price lunch. As we’ve noted above, the majority of black and Latino students attend these schools, while less than 23 percent of white students do. Busing students has become a predictably controversial topic of discussion, and some members of the task force found themselves surprised at the wish of some poor families for their children to remain in neighborhood schools and not be bused to higher-performing schools, a sign that real misunderstandings and a lack of awareness about the desires of Charlotte’s poorer residents run deep.

A school-board plan under consideration would reassign some students to different schools in an attempt to reduce segregation and the effects of concentrated poverty. It could also complicate the task force’s efforts to tackle the lack of social mobility in a cohesive, collaborative way. The plan has drawn threats from several local towns to pull out of the school district, which currently encompasses the whole county, and the superintendent, already an interim placement, is scheduled to retire this year, which means the task force will need to work with new leadership.

While it’s too early to say what the task force will recommend precisely, Collier expects that a focus on early childhood and incentives to create more integrated communities will be key. A number of young people have told the task force they want mentors who can guide them through the college-application process. Of course there is broad consensus around the idea that kids in the poor parts of Charlotte should have the same access to good teachers, parks, after-school activities, crime-free neighborhoods, grocery stores, and job opportunities as kids in the wealthier parts of the city. But agreeing on specific policies and funding streams is a challenge, particularly in an area where both liberal and conservative ideologies have real strongholds.

“What we're trying to figure out is, how do you navigate that Venn diagram of credibility and feasibility,” Collier said. “Personally, I would feel the effort would be a failure if we come out with a big bold goal and vision, and it lacks a clear pathway to being implemented. That's always tough, because there are those who really do want you to never sacrifice or never bend on certain principles.” The ultimate goal will be to improve over the next 20 to 30 years the ability for poor children to rise to and remain in the middle- and upper-income segments of the city. No one on the task force is under the illusion change will happen overnight.