Latest “State of the South” report documents a divided region

MDCRecently, the good people at Durham-based nonprofit known as MDC, released the group’s most recent “State of the South” report. For those interested in looking behind the headlines to get a feel for exactly what’s going on in the region, it’s an important “must read.”

This year’s report, which carries the impressive title “Building an infrastructure of opportunity for the next generation,” looks closely at the issue of youth mobility in the South. Recently, one of the report’s authors, Alyson Zandt, submitted this very useful summary:

A young person born at the bottom of the income ladder in the South is less likely to move up it as an adult than in any other region in the nation. Some of the region’s cities may be thriving, but even our most economically vibrant places do not propel enough of their youth and young people up the ladder of economic and social mobility.

The State of the South 2014 report, “Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation,” takes a deep look at youth mobility in the South. The report, released by Durham-based nonprofit MDC, finds, for instance, that in the Forbes magazine rating of “Best Places for Business and Careers,’’ six Southern metros placed in the top 10 among the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the nation, but eight Southern metros rank in the worst 10 metropolitan areas on a measure of mobility. Of Southern metros in the top 50 for business, only one is also in the top 50 for mobility: Houston, Texas.

The gap between business vitality and youth mobility is especially pronounced in North Carolina’s largest cities.

On the Forbes list, Raleigh is ranked first in business vitality and Charlotte seventh of the largest 100 U.S. metros; in contrast, Raleigh ranks 94th in mobility and Charlotte 98th—meaning only two large U.S. metros have lower mobility than Charlotte. In both Raleigh and Charlotte, the number of people in poverty has doubled since 2000. For children who grew up squarely in the bottom fifth of the income distribution quintile in Charlotte and Raleigh, 37 percent remain there as adults, around 30 percent rise to the lower middle fifth, and 19 percent make it to the middle.

Despite clear signs that North Carolina’s young people are struggling to connect with economic success—31.9 percent of workers under age 25 were underemployed in 2013, compared to 14.3 percent in 2000—there is little state investment in their success. In North Carolina, K-12 public education spending declined by $855 per pupil from fiscal years 2008 to 2015. In contrast, the state has increased its rate of imprisonment per 100,000 residents by 66 percent since 1978, with state corrections spending in fiscal year 2013 at $1.7 billion. The state’s share of general fund expenditures going toward corrections spending went from 4.2 percent in fiscal year 1986 to 8.3 percent in fiscal year 2013.

To address the mobility challenge, the report says, Southern communities need to create an “infrastructure of opportunity” for youth and young adults that is as seamless as the electric grid or the water system—and just as essential. That infrastructure consists of a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity.

The State of the South report profiles nine Southern communities, large and small, urban and rural—including Charlotte and Durham—and examines the status of their opportunity infrastructures. It points out innovative ideas they are trying and what they may be missing, including a focused perspective on youth economic mobility as part of their education and economic development strategies.

In Durham, for instance, employers and educators along the education-to-career pipeline are working together to ensure young people are prepared to take advantage of the city’s dynamic employment opportunities. For example, Durham Public Schools is using an N.C. Education and Workforce Innovation Fund grant awarded by the state earlier this year to support collaboration among DPS, Durham Technical Community College and employers to expose middle- and high-school students to health and life science careers, align curricula, and create work-based learning opportunities at the high school and community college level.

To see the report and download a copy, go to


  1. B Mathis

    November 11, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    This article magnifies the importance of creating partnerships with the business community and K-12 public schools. Durham Public Schools example is similar to what my school system is embarking upon. Partnerships with business and local community colleges will help identify job skills and areas of employment for our students. Opportunities for internships and real-world experience create an academic delivery model that is relevant and engaging. Using these resources, our students will learn valuable skills (hard and soft) to be competitive in the workplace upon graduation from high school and/or college.

  2. M. Manning

    November 11, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    The lack of upward mobility of NC youth is troubling, to say the least, and public schools must assume some responsibility for preparing our students to move into higher socioeconomic levels. Mentioned in the post were alliances between schools and community colleges. North Carolina’s Early College network is another way the education-to-career pipeline is working. Arguably, upward mobility is lacking among our youth because of a deficit not only in education, but also in the vital area of role models and a network of contacts. Early Colleges focus on attracting students who lack these attributes, and then providing them with the supports necessary to thrive in a college setting. It would be interesting to track the recent graduates of North Carolina’s Early Colleges, as compared to graduates of traditional high schools, to see if the investment North Carolina is making in cooperative innovative high schools is resulting in students who as adults are upwardly mobile in income distribution quintiles.

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