Charlotte, North Carolina: A City with One of the Lowest Economic Mobility Rates in the Nation

Ethan Ehrenhaft-

In 2013, Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of California- Berkeley released findings from their joint Equality of Opportunity Project. The project looked at causes and potential solutions for cases of intergenerational poverty and inequality throughout the United States. Charlotte, Davidson’s most prominent urban neighbor, did not fare well in the study.

According to the findings, out of the country’s 50 largest cities, Charlotte ranked last for economic mobility. If born into the bottom 20th income percentile, a Charlottean had just a 4.4% likelihood of making it to the top 20%.

Impoverished individuals in some other major cities fared over twice as well as those in Charlotte. New York residents had a 10.5% chance of reaching the top fifth percentile, while those in San Jose had a whopping 12.9% opportunity. The areas that consistently fared the worst were in the Deep South: Atlanta barely beat Charlotte at 4.5%, while some parts of rural Mississippi were as low as 2.6%.

The report’s stark numbers lie in contrast with Charlotte’s national reputation as the financial jewel of the South. Charlotte is the third largest banking center in the US behind New York City and San Francisco, riding a business boom since the 1970s.

Forbes lists the city as seventh on its “Best Places for Business and Careers” list. The median household income for Charlotte is $68,034, more than $10,000 higher than the US average of $57,617, according to the Census Bureau. What, then, accounts for Charlotte’s extreme economic disparity?

“A quick walk through Uptown makes it clear that Charlotte owes its growth primarily to the financial sector,” explained Miles Powell ‘19, who interned at an investment bank over the summer. “Leaving Tryon Street makes it clear how little that development has been shared in.”

“I’ve heard it framed as if it’s almost like there are ‘two Charlottes,’” commented Meg Fencil, the Program Director of Sustain Charlotte, a non-profit organization. According to Fencil, those two hypothetical cities consist of the “shiny, economically vibrant Charlotte with the banking center and uptown” and the other Charlotte, “with intergenerational poverty,” bearing the 50th out of 50 cities label.

Charlotte has more than doubled its population since 1990 and now boasts 842,051 residents in 2017. The city can expect to add over 400,000 people in the next 25 years. Public transportation and roadworks have lagged far behind the population swell, as have housing projects. A study carried out by the University of Utah found that of 162 “urbanized areas” nationwide, Charlotte had the 5th worst urban sprawl, as measured by compactness of residential areas.

“One of the things that has no doubt had an impact is the way Charlotte has grown over the last three decades,” stated Dr. Vikram Kumar, the current Chair of the Economics Department. While the prosperity of Charlotte’s financial, healthcare, and energy sectors “has lead to a redevelopment and renaissance of the uptown area, it is also true that people who have lived here for many generations historically, including underprivileged households, have likely had to have moved away due to increasing tax burdens and increasing property values,” according to Kumar.

Sustain Charlotte works on addressing many of the issues linked to Charlotte’s economic immobility. One of the more pressing problems, visible to any Davidson student who frequents I-77, is the drastic need for improved transportation infrastructure. The rapidly increasing population sprawl also means building a cohesive public transportation system is especially important.

The Charlotte Observer notes the conflict between Charlotte’s urban expansion and “a state Department of Transportation that continues to build highways like it’s 1956”. Of the 73 US cities with populations greater than 250,000, AllTransit ranks Charlotte 54th for overall quality of transit services. Only 37,049 workers in Charlotte are “accessible within a 30 minute transit commute to an employer,” according to AllTransit’s database. Contrast this with 364,787 workers available within a 30-minute commute in San Francisco, a city with a comparable population.

Public transportation especially affects low-income demographic whom cannot afford cars and must rely on transit to get to jobs and other resources. Households making the median income in Charlotte spend over half their income on housing and transportation. There are numerous initiatives that can help tackle Charlotte’s transportation disparities, some of which are in the works.

The “Who’s on Board” 2016 national transit study found that 80% of “all-purpose riders who take transit regularly for multiple purposes” have to walk to their transit stops. Roughly 75% of daily trips on the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) are taken on a bus. Many bus stops are inadequately serviced by sidewalks or dangerous for pedestrians to get to. Investing in sidewalk and pedestrian walkways can ease this deficiency.

Investment is needed to increase the frequency of bus stops on given routes as well. An average one-way trip on CATS takes roughly 90 minutes, according to Fencil. Unreliable transit places stress on families who must balance things like child-care and cooking with commute time. Fencil believes that “just having a bus stop at that location isn’t necessarily enough,” especially if that bus only comes every 45 minutes.

Encouraging cost effective transportations alternatives may also help ease the strain on the transit system. “[Biking] represents a real mobility opportunity for a lot of people who couldn’t afford a car or who are unable to drive,” stated Fencil. The majority of Americans who bike or walk to work earn under $35,000 annually. Sustain Charlotte is advocating for permanent bike lanes to be installed in downtown Charlotte.

Another of Charlotte’s major problems is one shared with many cities facing economic inequality: an acute shortage of affordable housing. Housing and real estate prices have soared in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area in recent years. Over the summer, the median price of a home reached $236,000, up 10 percent from last year, according to The Charlotte Observer.

As neighborhoods gentrify and are redeveloped, long time city residents are being driven from their homes. Affordable housing units are thousands below the required numbers, particularly for those making under $35,350, under half of the Charlotte median income.

“The affordable housing is not what it needs to be, and it’s driving people out of communities,” said Charlotte-native Caroline Roddey ‘20.

A recently released study by Freddie Mac found that a Charlotte family of four making half the city’s median has about $884 a month to spend on rent. The average monthly rent for the city sits at $1,115, and the trend is only worsening as the high-end real estate boom continues according to Freddie Mac.

African-American and Latino communities frequently face the brunt of the gentrification. Many impoverished neighborhoods still trace their roots to the days of Jim Crow housing regulations. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system also still deals with de facto segregation.

According to a UNC Charlotte study reported in the The Atlantic, “77 percent of black students attend majority-poverty schools, while only 23 percent of white students do”.

“[Due to a lack of busing across school district,] you’ve already seen some resegregation of the schools to the extent that folks are going to their neighborhood schools and their neighborhood schools are not high performing schools,” explained Dr. Fred Smith, who specializes in urban economics in the Economics Department. “I think it creates real issues in terms of not getting kids a path to getting out of that intergenerational poverty.”

“It seems plausible to say that the state of schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area have not allowed segments of the population to move ahead at the rate we would want,” added Kumar. The Charlotte City Council proposed rezoning measures to attempt to increase classroom diversity earlier this year. As a result, “there’s a lot of white flight going to the private schools,” according to Roddey.

Roddey attended Myers Park High School, a public school with a higher percentage of Caucasian students than the Charlotte average. “It was very obvious in the public school system that students at Myers Park who were from wealthier families were given preferential treatment, they were put in the IB programs, they were put in the AP programs,” she explained.

Tensions over Charlotte’s racially biased housing and schooling problems contributed in part to the public furor following the September 20th, 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. In response to the protests and the Equality of Opportunity Project’s study, the city launched its own Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force.

Released earlier this year, the Task Force’s nearly 100-page report outlined potential solutions to inequality problems such as the affordable housing crisis and dare-care shortages. Recent studies, such as the one conducted by Freddie Mac, suggest that the 5,000 affordable housing units proposed by the report still falls well short of Charlotte’s needs.

Roddey reflected on her city; “I see the problems getting worse; I don’t see them getting any better.”

Studies continue to be conducted regarding inequality in Charlotte, expounding upon the Equality of Opportunity Project report. CATS is holding open forums this week throughout the Davidson area to discuss expanding transit rails north of Charlotte [9].

Kumar stated, “I think that the first step in rectifying any problem is to recognize that the problem exists. I think that first step has been taken.”

Davidson Town Hall is hosting a meeting about transit north of Charlotte tonight, Wednesday, November 8th, from 6:30 to 8:00pm.