Charlotte’s big report on economic mobility was a letdown — because the city is anxious for action

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More than 20 minutes before a blue-ribbon commission unveiled its vision for eliminating disparities in Charlotte, the sizable parking deck outside the Government Center was closed off.

It was full. Yet people still streamed down the sidewalks of Second Ward to hear the presentation.

In one of the most visible shows of civic cooperation and muscle in recent memory, business and political leaders spent nearly two hours Monday morning discussing a new report full of strategies to alleviate poverty and help people climb the economic ladder.

The event drew dignitaries from all corners of Charlotte. But the much-anticipated report left much still to do.

“If you came hoping for a silver bullet, we will disappoint you,” said Michael Marsicano, CEO of Foundation for the Carolinas, a philanthropic giant and a primary backer of the Opportunity Task Force that produced the report.

“It will require years of implementation work, only starting today.”

The final product does break some significant new ground. For the first time, all of Charlotte’s power players were in one room, admitting their blind spots and the community’s failings.

And the report is extremely comprehensive, with more than 100 recommendations that can serve as starting points for conversations over the next few years.

It’s also notable that the report’s authors cited the powerful word “segregation” again and again as they laid out how Charlotte got in this predicament.

But the recommendations in the full report remain largely abstract. For example, two of them call to “promote marriage” and to “advocate for the active involvement of fathers in the lives of their children.”

And for the most part, the “implementation tactics” the report sets out are not straightforward steps that can be taken, but starting points for projects that will require their own months of study, planning, preparation and — maybe one day? — execution.

The event ended by passing the baton to a new task force that will be in charge of actually doing something with the report’s findings.

So why was the event so disappointing?

While this project began years ago, the problems of Charlotte’s inequality have only become more urgent. Protestors after the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott at the hands of a police officer unearthed simmering tensions that had been long papered over by the city’s leaders.

The message: Charlotte’s pattern of task forces recommending more task forces isn’t going to cut it anymore. It’s time for action.

Opportunity Task Force members themselves cautioned repeatedly that this wasn’t going to solve all Charlotte’s problems on the spot. They said it so often I believe they were self-conscious about it.

keith scott protest charlotte

Charlotte’s penchant for being overly polite and back-slapping also reared its head as task force leaders and community officials spent the vast majority of the presentation Monday praising themselves for putting the report together.

Too many of the recommendations also simply praise existing programs, and it’s voluminous enough to avoid much accountability.

Luckily, the task force leaders have left the job of actually doing something in very capable hands.

Back up. Where did this report come from?

The report was the product of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, a panel with roots that stretch back to 2013. That’s when a Harvard University study showed that the Mecklenburg County ranked 50th out of 50 large cities in economic mobility, or whether people who were born to poor families could make their way to the middle or upper class.

Then-county commissioners chairman Trevor Fuller called for a blue-ribbon panel to convene to figure out ways to address the disparities. A year later, Novant executive Ophelia Garmon-Brown and U.S. Bank executive Dee O’Dell were tapped as co-chairs of the Opportunity Task Force, which ultimately drew contributions from a cross-section of the community elite.

They spent 18 months studying issues of poverty, health, economics and education, and the result was Monday’s announcement.

What does the report say needs to be done?

The Opportunity Task Force report separates its action items into roughly five different buckets.

Two are called “cross-cutting factors” and impact all areas of Charlotte: the impact of segregation and lack of social capital. Charlotte’s housing patterns continue to fall along racial and socioeconomic lines, with affluent white people concentrated in the south Charlotte wedge while poorer minority neighborhoods make up the crescent to the east, north and west.

Social capital refers to the fact that affluent people have networks they can lean on and a loud voice in the community, while poor people generally do not.

Then there are the three specific categories where the task force makes recommendations: early care and education, college and career readiness, and family and child stability.

Early care and education: Charlotte has a wait list of more than 3,000 families waiting on child care subsidies. Mecklenburg County is already exploring how to create universal pre-K programs, and the task force calls for expanding on that.

College and career readiness: Report authors said there is a “disconnect in what employers want and what school districts understand them to be.” Recommendations here call for creating new pathways instead of the four-year university track and eliminating the stigma around vocational education.

Family and child stability: This slate of recommendations centers on promoting two-parent families and addressing the affordable housing shortage.

Does the report focus on the right things?

Yes, for the most part.

The report unearths some long-buried truths, like the fact that high-poverty schools don’t have the breadth of classes and offerings that their richer peers do. It also addresses a lot of issues that have only been whispered about in the past.

There were several pithy moments of clarity that have rarely been spoken.

“It’s not enough to have programs,” co-chairman Dee O’Dell said while explaining that larger systems in the city are broken.

“We’ve never been held accountable for the talent we create in this community,” Foundation for the Carolinas executive vice president Brian Collier said.

But there are some noticeable failings.

The report essentially punts on the issue of segregated schools, declining to give any recommendations while the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board decides how to craft a redistricting plan.

Matt Comer, a LGBT activist, also pointed out on Twitter that there is nary a mention of LGBT issues anywhere in the report.

What happens next?

The telling quote came at the end: “We now need a game plan for how to move things forward.”

To do so, the Opportunity Task Force kicked responsibility for figuring out how to make actual changes to two new community leaders: Bank of America executive Andrea Smith and former N.C. teacher of the year James Ford.

Both have excellent track records for getting things done. Ford, in particular, has a direct insight into numerous recommendations, having been a teacher at high-poverty Garinger High.

Time and again, the task force leaders promised that this wouldn’t be a report that just sat on a shelf to gather dust.

“We are not going back to business as usual, and today is just the beginning,” Mayor Jennifer Roberts said.

Time will tell if they keep the promise.

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Andrew Dunn
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