How likely is a child from a poor household to become a member of the middle or upper class? If you’ve been listening to the news at all recently, you’ve probably heard about two places: Baltimore County, Maryland, and Dupage County, Illinois. These are some of the worst counties in the nation for low-income children to live. But recent research shows children in one North Carolina County might fare just as poorly as their peers in Baltimore.
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina is the second-worst county for upward mobility in the entire nation (Baltimore County in Maryland is the worst). According to a comprehensive new study from Harvard, “every year spent growing up in Mecklenburg County, NC reduces a child’s income by… $189 per year in earnings at age 26.”
Meanwhile, if a child spends twenty years living in the “best” county in the nation — Dupage County, Illinois — their income (for a below-median income family) would increase by $7,948, or 30.5%.
The Harvard study also tracked the outcomes of a child moving from a worse county to a better one. The results suggested that it does not just matter where you move; it matters when you move. If a child older than the age of 13 moves cities—even if it is from a worse city to a better one—that move can be detrimental to the child’s earning potential. Moving before the age of 10 seems to be a significant cut-off point.
“If you move with young children to a place with more mobility, the children could soak up the causal effect of that new neighborhood,” according to Derek Thompson, a writer for The Atlantic. Those effects? Higher lifetime earnings, more schooling, and a home environment more likely to have dual-earners.
And it’s not just Charlotte-Mecklenburg that we should worry about. Thompson cites the entire southeastern U.S. as the “worst in in the country.” The southeast tends to be more segregated, has more income inequality, and worse schools. “These areas do really, really poorly in terms of income mobility,” Thompson states.
So what kind of environments produce good outcomes? “Shared resources and shared real estate,” says Thompson, where people of all different levels of income live together. Places that do this well are big cities like Seattle and Minneapolis, and larger counties like… Dupage, Illinois. These places have “better schools, less segregation, and lower crime,” according to Thompson.
As I sit here in my North Carolina home and look at this map, entirely in red and showing exactly how much future income my children are likely to lose—no matter what socioeconomic class they come from—I cannot help but think, even for a moment, that if these numbers are right, I am doing my children a disservice by raising them in this county.
And then I snap out of it and think again. What can we do, as parents, to make sure that our children, and all of the children of North Carolina, have better outcomes than those who were tracked in this study?
With all of the challenges facing North Carolina, we need a place to start. How about better schools? To do that, we need to fund education. We need to ensure that the pre-k to prison pipeline is ended. We need to make our public schools the best-funded schools in the country, not some of the worst.
Steps are already being taken in Charlotte, according to a report from the Institute for Southern Studies. Infrastructure, education, and employment are key areas of intervention. Public/private partnerships like Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership & Investment for Transformation) are working with schools and communities to produce better outcomes in education. Work like this, being done across the state, could be the key to making North Carolina a desirable place for families. We need to make North Carolina a home worth staying in, not one that we should flee for the sake of our children.
Melissa Geil is a freelance writer and English teacher. Although originally from New York, she moved to North Carolina the first time for college (go Tar Heels), and now she is back to stay. She enjoys reading, hiking, and gallivanting around the triangle with her family.