A Slide with No Ladder - Opportunity in Charlotte

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“Yes, we’ve been hearing a lot about the social mobility rankings and Charlotte’s bad rap. People are starting to catch on.”

“What we think of when we think Charlotte is prosperity, banks, not the poor.”

“50 out of 50.”

Employees at Charlotte’s Crisis Assistance Ministry were referencing the recent Harvard study (PDF), which placed Charlotte at the dead bottom of 50 major U.S. metro areas when it comes to those born in poverty rising up in socioeconomic standing.

The authors of that 2014 study came to a number of striking conclusions. The probability “that a child reaches the top quintile of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile is 4.4% in Charlotte but 12.9% in San Jose.” They found that higher mobility areas are less residentially segregated, have less income inequality, better primary schools, and higher social capital and familial stability. The overarching theme? For the impoverished, location matters, but that part wasn’t news to all of us.

Combine that with the fact that over the next several years, the North Carolina Department of Commerce predicts that there will be an even larger wage gap (PDF) and wealth disparity than we have seen in prior decades, and we have a real problem in Charlotte. The percentage of new jobs that will require a 4-year degree or an advanced degree will go up by 19.7% and 5.3%, respectively, but the percentage of jobs requiring less than a GED will expand by 40.4%. The Department reports that the proportionate growth of low-education, low-wage jobs will “drive down average earnings relative to the US average.”

During our trip, John Gibson, a fellow research assistant and I toured the city with Daniel Valdez from Crisis Assistance by car to explore census tracts marred by chronic and deep poverty. John grew up in a sleepy town in upstate New York, and seemed shocked by the disparities of the city as well as its sheer size. Together, we observed Uptown Charlotte, loomed over by its steel patriarch in the form of the Bank of America Corporate Center, metamorphose into shambles of strip malls a little further from that zone. Daniel told John and me that there were at one point trailers lining the city highway we were driving on. Then, because of city planning and zoning, the trailers were pushed out of view, solidifying the idea that wealthy residents need to be visually protected from the poor.

Finally, we ventured to one of the poorest census tracts in the metro area. We saw a few women of color trekking on the unkempt roads in a place that looked like it was at one point a park, but it would be hard to define it as such today with its eternally uncut grass. The only thing park-like about the area was a single slide.

I turned to John and said: “Hey, man, look at that slide.”

“It doesn’t have a ladder,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, it’s just a slide. A slide with no ladder.”

The metaphoric potential was almost obvious enough to be kitsch. As a law student who spent most of undergraduate years with serious writerly ambitions and at one point considered an MFA in creative writing, this was it. This was the 50/50 in social mobility in a nutshell—the underbelly of the Charlotte identity.

And the question then becomes afterwards, what to do about it? The solution should be obvious, and in an abstract it might be. We need to build a ladder, some kind of route to rise with. Slides are generally thought of as child’s play, but this one was more insidious than that. We must look to protect those close to the edge of falling. And if we don’t, laws must be put into place to govern how the slide is used.

Think about it: you wouldn’t let your kids play on a slide with no way to get up.

Slide with no ladder

Posted by Rory J. Fleming on Wed. July 9, 2014 3:05 PM
Categories: Community Focus: Charlotte, Student Research
UNC School of Law | Van Hecke-Wettach Hall | 160 Ridge Road, CB #3380 | Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380 | 919.962.5106


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