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Inside one city's efforts to upend its numbers for economic mobility

People in Charlotte, North Carolina, are looking to buck the trend and give residents a better chance at economic mobility.
Inside one city's efforts to upend its numbers for economic mobility
Posted at 3:10 PM, Oct 16, 2023

Decades before Sherri Chisholm entered the Earth, her grandparents left family in Alabama for job options in Detroit.

"My grandfather worked on the line for Ford Motor Company," Chisholm recalled. "My grandmother was a teacher's aide. My mom retired as an elementary school principal."

In every generation, she says, "My family economically was doing better."

But this story doesn't take place in Detroit. It sets us in Charlotte, where three years ago Chisholm moved back to the South for the same reasons her elders moved north.

"It was leaving my family in search of a new land for better opportunity for the family I want to raise," Chisholm said. "I'm really clear with everyone that I'm here for my family's economic mobility first."

A term like "economic mobility" sounds clinical and distant. But it refers to that universal hope of each generation to provide for the next. It's on Chisholm's mind because she's the one tasked with helping bring it to Charlotte and possibly providing an example for America.

"The issues that Charlotte has been facing for generations are not unique to Charlotte," said Chisholm. "I think what makes Charlotte unique is our response to those challenges."

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Charlotte's response came to a landmark study from Harvard used Census and IRS data to rank America's cities on economic mobility. Fifty cities were measured. Charlotte landed at the bottom.

Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. She wrote a report wondering if America was "still the land of opportunity." That was in 1999.

"One of the ways I often put it is, in America, you need to pick your parents well," said Sawhill. "We don't like to think of ourselves as being a class based society. But we have more of that kind of class structure in America than we might like."

The gap has been growing for a while. When Charlotte came in last, its leaders built an effort to correct it. Their research pinpointed three key factors to mobility: early care and education, college and career readiness and family stability. 

In the last decade, the county that contains Charlotte has cleared its waiting list for free public preschool. Business leaders are working to develop pipelines to those often overlooked. And affordable housing is rising all over.

Above all that is an online opportunity compass to measure every factor, up or down.

"It's like exercise, right?" Chisholm said. "You don't exercise and then you're done and you're healthy forever. If you let up off the gas, the issues will re-present themselves."

To truly create change will likely take multiple decades, through multiple mayors, multiple programs and multiple Chisholms. But if her story began generations before, she's thinking about generations ahead.

"I moved to Charlotte at the end of September 2020, seven months pregnant," she said.

Chisholm's daughter, Jocelyn, is now a toddler. Time will decide whether she one day leaves to find opportunity somewhere else. But if Chisholm – and Charlotte succeed – it won't be because opportunity didn't exist here.


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