North Carolina Needs Policies that Transform Disadvantaged Areas into Communities of Opportunity

The newly released State of Working North Carolina Chartbook reveals how several economic trends over the 2000s resulted in diminished opportunities for the state’s workers. Although the Chartbook does not review how workers are faring at the neighborhood level due to data limitations, it has been well-documented by the Budget and Tax Center that too many North Carolinians are concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods where good education and job opportunities are severely limited. North Carolina needs policies that will strengthen the opportunity structure—especially in disadvantaged areas—in order to build a more inclusive economy that will support workers and the recovery.

As evidenced by high poverty rates and other economic indicators like joblessness and business vacancy rates, some neighborhoods are hurting more than others and the need to rebuild is clear. Disparities in economic opportunity at the neighborhood level have persisted during the decades-long transformation in the state’s economy and have grown since the Great Recession. Some neighborhoods’ economic hardships have been shaped by the isolation from good jobs and expanding industries, commercial disinvestment, and inequitable outcomes rooted in government policies.  Although the underlying causes of disadvantage may vary from community to community, the negative effects of living in an opportunity-deprived area are largely uniform, wide-ranging, and destructive.

Seeking to reverse neighborhoods’ negative characteristics is in the best interest of all North Carolinians because everyone is impacted when economic hardship increases. Fortunately, revitalizing disadvantaged neighborhoods into vibrant, productive employment centers is a fixable problem because neighborhoods are amenable to change via targeted, placed-based policies that improve equity of access and opportunity. It is critical that state investments foster the well-being of residents in opportunity-deprived areas by supporting access to a high-quality education, living-wage jobs, affordable transportation options, and small-business development.

There are policy tools available to North Carolina policymakers that prioritize economically distressed areas. Examples of general tools available include funds for low-wealth school districts to develop our future workforce and economic development funds for Tier 1 counties to boost local competition and improve residents’ chances for financial security. However, in order to truly create communities of opportunity, policymakers must focus on the needs of low-income people with an eye on where they live and work. This vision requires policymakers to work across multiple policy silos in order to achieve targeted, integrated development.

For example, increasing public transit options does not help low-income people if the housing around bus stops or rail stops is unaffordable. Likewise, many vehicle-free residents living in rural and exurban areas cannot connect to workforce development programs without access to affordable child care and a reliable public transit system. Interagency coordination alone will not be enough to support workers or to empower communities. Policymakers also need to enhance coordination at the regional and metropolitan level where most of the employment opportunities and supports for low-income and the unemployed currently exist.

North Carolina can also level the playing field through policies that support decent, affordable housing in mixed-income neighborhoods. Research shows that investing in housing tends to generate private investment that in turn increases property values, benefiting the entire community. Policymakers can ensure that public investments result in equitable growth and broadly-shared benefits by requiring first-source or community benefit agreements. Such tools ensure that residents in struggling areas have ready access to living-wage jobs created by businesses receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies.

Without connections to healthy food, safe housing and employment will likely fall short of yielding significantly better health outcomes. Therefore, neighborhood-level transformation and healthy development also requires policies aimed at reducing food hardship by increasing access to healthy foods and grocery stores in low-opportunity areas. Considering North Carolina’s poor food environment, state policymakers should consider strengthening communities’ food infrastructure by supporting programs that attract and retain fresh food retailers in disadvantaged neighborhoods and other community-supported agriculture programs that connect local farmers to low-income residents.

These place-based policies are just a few ways policymakers can increase equity of access to opportunities that are fundamental to creating prosperous communities. In the absence of policy change, North Carolina will continue to contend with communities that are disconnected to the networks that improve economic mobility. North Carolinians know that neighborhoods are places for living and working—and many residents expect policymakers to support policies that lay the groundwork for inclusive economic development, making self-improvement possible.

7 Comments

  1. Frank Burns

    September 5, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I’m of the opinion that communism is not welcome in North Carolina. When you start talking about a “living wage”, and defining what is “healthy food”, you are straying into totalitarianism. The government has no business dictating what type of food store goes in what community. There is nothing wrong with the food found in your standard Food Lion. If a person wants to eat a bag of pork rinds, followed up with some yoo hoos and an RC cola, that’s his business. Why do you all want to keep placing limits on our freedom? It is appropriate for the government to give advice, not to interfere.

  2. david esmay

    September 5, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Living wage and healthy food is a sign of totalitarianism, really? I’m of the opinion thatYou are a lunatic. This part of the country, because of our diets, have some of the highest rates of stroke and heart disease. What’s wrong with promoting healthy eating? Do you understand that in the long run it would greatly things like the cost of health care? It’s about advocating healthy choices in an increasingly obese society. Buying fresh locally grown products not only promotes healthy diets but supports small businesses.

  3. Frank Burns

    September 5, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    David, what planet are you on? If citizens choose to eat healthy or not, that is their decision not yours. There is nothing wrong with promoting healthy eating, but there is something wrong about the government providing healthy eating facilities. Promote all you want, but don’t you dare come up with another program for the tax payers to fund or mandate what people are to eat. What’s defined as “healthy” changes all the time. Coffee is good for you, then bad for you then good for you. Forgetaboutit. I choose freedom.

  4. david esmay

    September 5, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Where does it say government provided healthy eating facility? I don’t see any mandates listed in the article, what the hell are you talking about laddie? If that’s what you take from the article, then you are a case book paranoid Frank. What I get from the article is that maybe if poorer neighborhoods had nice farmer’s markets, complete with a NC Ag office, kinda like the one near my home, it would encourage people to eat better and provide farmers with an expanded market. Frank you’re starting to exhibit symptoms of advanced Republimentia, we are all here to help you work through it.

  5. Alex

    September 5, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Until we can somehow get the drugs out of these neighborhoods, no businesses or companies will ever go in there because of the associated crime involved. The Latin cartels have effectively shackeled these residents using them to generate huge profits for the cartels, getting them addicted, and then sending many especially the young adolescents to jail. I’m amazed that people are not more upset about this.

  6. gregflynn

    September 5, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Alex, you’re smoking your own product.

  7. Doug

    September 6, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Alex is exactly right ! They accuse Republicans of shackeling the disadvantaged and clearly miss the obvious. greg should get out of his comfortable little ITB haunts and take a ride over to some of the East and South Raleigh neighborhoods on a Saturday night, and he’ll see what you mean.Tthe Latin connection has taken over, and are the only entrepreneurs willing to go in there.