These frustrations echoed through a panel I moderated this week in Charlotte at an Atlantic conference on race and criminal justice. Since 2010, according to Brookings, the area has ranked in the top 20 among large metros for growth in terms of jobs and overall economic output. But activists in Charlotte’s African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods uniformly said that dynamism had failed to reach their communities. “It’s growing so much, but it’s leaving a lot of people behind,” said Oliver Merino, an organizer at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy who works mostly with Hispanic families.
More mayors are confronting these complex issues head-on. They are looking for ways to channel more of their growth into neglected neighborhoods, or trying to leverage the tax resources the growth provides, or both. “The common thread is mayors and other local leaders see outsized growth coming into their communities … and want to make sure it is equitably distributed,” said Brooks Rainwater, the director of the National League of Cities’s Center for City Solutions.
Charlotte has examined these problems more systematically than most. After a study led by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty ranked it last among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in promoting upward mobility for low-income kids, local leaders convened a task force on opportunity that produced an extensive report this spring. That effort urged the city to focus mostly on three areas: expanding access to early-childhood education, building a better bridge between high school and post-secondary education, and strengthening families.
In late September, a follow-up report from the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners presented a detailed plan for advancing the most important of those recommendations, the one on early-childhood education. Today, the county study noted, less than one-third of the roughly 12,000 children who enter kindergarten each year attend publicly funded preschool for four-year-olds. The study laid out a plan to cover all of them—at no cost to families earning twice the poverty level or less, and with sliding-scale tuition fees for those from more affluent families. Simultaneously, it said, Charlotte should invest in upgrading the quality of its preschool teachers.
The report proposed raising either sales or property taxes to help fund an annual cost for preschool that would reach about $75 million when fully phased in. Endorsing those taxes would mark a tangible first step toward Charlotte’s leaders demonstrating they are committed to tapping the community’s growing prosperity to expand opportunity for all their residents.
In Chicago—a less genteel place where these issues of growth versus need provoke even more friction—Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already undertaken most of the initiatives the Charlotte opportunity task force proposed. (He’s funded a big expansion of pre-K, as well as a community-college scholarship for high-school graduates who maintain good grades.)