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.