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This Time it's Different



A new report from two premier American think tanks gives clear advice on one of the defining social and economic challenges of our time: We must improve intergenerational economic mobility in our country and the time to make a difference is now.

The think tanks responsible for the report do not always nor do they often come to the same conclusions on critical social or economic policies. The American Enterprise Institute is one of the premier free-market, conservative-leaning think tanks in the US, “…a community of scholars and supporters committed to expanding liberty, increasing individual opportunity and strengthening free enterprise.”

The Brookings Institute, while not a handmaiden of the Democratic National Party, is traditionally a more progressive outfit, conducting “…high-quality, independent research” to provide practical policy recommendations.

Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A consensus plan for reducing poverty and restoring the American dream,” was produced by scholars and researchers from AEI and Brookings. They offer a unanimous endorsement on the most effective ways to lift individuals and families out of poverty.

The report offers detailed and realistic policy and program recommendations for how we can come together – conservatives, liberals, middle-of-the-roaders and all others – to promote policies and programs that improve economic mobility.

As director of a health and wellness agency serving the poor in Charlotte, a number of their recommendations struck a chord, including their advocacy for Nurse-Family Partnership as a proven intervention with compelling positive results for low income moms and their children.

But the power of their recommendations extends far beyond looking at any one single intervention, regardless of impact. The report looks comprehensively at poverty and its many causes. It considers the important interplay of family, work and education in putting forward ideas that can work.

Their findings hold special meaning in Charlotte, as we are coming to grips with and learning how to address our own very serious “intergenerational economic mobility” problem.

The “economic mobility” part of this phrase refers to the ability of individuals and families to move up (or down) in their economic condition. Some people in some places – by dint of circumstance or hard work or some other fortuitous combination of events, seem to climb up the ladder quicker and more easily than others.

The “intergenerational” piece suggests that economic mobility has a very long time trajectory – and does not just impact folks today but has a long tail and continues to have positive and negative repercussions on future generations.

As far as intergenerational economic mobility goes, Charlotte recently received a dubious and unwanted recognition. Last year a Harvard University and University of California-Berkeley study on upward mobility found that of the 50 largest US cities, Charlotte is the most difficult place for children living in poverty to climb up the ladder of opportunity.

So a key part of Charlotte’s soul and sense of self is now under attack.

Aren’t we the place where newness and goodness and growth and good fortune all come to live happily?

We are undoubtedly growing faster and attracting young workers quicker than just about any major metro area in the US.

How can we square this good news on our growth with the unhappy news that we are one of the most difficult large cities in America for the poor to participate in the American Dream?

Charlotte does what it does better than perhaps any community in the country when confronted with a conundrum: We created a task force.

There is a cycle in Charlotte’s standard operating system when confronted with bad news, described beautifully by Solid’s Tracy Russ in a recent blog post, “Breaking the 10-Year Civic Festival Cycle”.

As Tracy shares, a poor national ranking on some civic measure embarrasses us, our city fathers call together a task force to do something, a seemingly workable and sober initiative is launched, then the project drifts away until a new ranking of our poor performance on an economic/social/educational measurement arises, triggering the cycle to start anew.

This time it’s different

With the stakes so high – and the possible solutions so varied – our reaction to how we address our poor performance on economic mobility suggests that this time it is different.

Improving economic mobility cannot and will not be solved by simply pushing a few policy buttons or introducing or advancing any single program.

It will take time – multiple generations, in fact – to make long-term and sustained progress on how we create a Charlotte full of opportunity for all, and especially for those starting out in the most challenging economic situations.

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, launched earlier this year, is poised to break the mold and lead.

The Opportunity Task Force has broad and sustained support from Charlotte’s major public, private, and philanthropic leaders. The task force has been charged with researching, understanding, and then teaching all of us why Charlotte does so poorly on measures of intergenerational economic mobility.

They have a diverse and highly capable group of volunteer servant-leaders representing Charlotte on the task force, led by the remarkable doctor/pastor/trailblazing leader Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown and local banking executive Dee O’Dell.

The pieces are in place for Charlotte to not only fully understand this challenge but to tackle it head on and have the patience to see progress in the coming years.

Thanks to this new report from AEI and Brookings, our Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force has the playbook describing the problem and they have a gameplan for how we can fix it.

And together we will.

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