Regardless of what happens today, North Carolina’s greatest policy challenge is increasingly clear
It’s one of the great conundrums of modern society: All around us, images of wealth, comfort, individual freedom and swiftly advancing technology tell a story of promise and progress. For millions and millions of people, life really is safer, freer, healthier and wealthier than ever before. And yet, as nearly all of us can sense, something is clearly amiss in this picture.
A recent and frequently-replayed television commercial  symbolizes this at once idyllic and illusive new world. In it, a man races his amazing, high-tech, rocket-like automobile through a series of twisting and scenic roads, all in order – as it turns out – to deliver an ice cream cone to his daughter at their lovely home before it melts.
Setting aside the question of whether the freedom to race a gleaming metal and plastic box over a mountain to deliver dessert is really what life is all about, there is no denying that for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the wealth and comfort symbolized by this ad are and will always be out of reach.
While millions live the lives that their grandparents hoped they’d enjoy, a much greater number remain stuck in place with few, if any, prospects of joining the party – a fact made all the more poignant and vexing for the have nots by the ease with which technology allows them to observe the lives of the haves.
Documenting the mobility gap
Where once Americans prided themselves on the simple truth that any would-be Horatio Alger willing to work hard could “make it,” the hard truth in 2014 is that such mythology is just that: mythology. For millions of haves, wealth is the byproduct of education and opportunity at best and, often, at worse, mere inheritance and blind investment. Meanwhile, for the tens of millions of have nots, dedication to multiple jobs, long hours and dedicated thrift is a ticket to mere survival and little more.
Sadly, there are few places in modern America in which this gap between the dream and the reality stand in sharper relief than southern United States and, in particular, North Carolina. If this sounds like an exaggeration, check out the newest “State of the South” report  from the Durham-based research outfit known as MDC.
As the recently-released report (which is entitled “Building an infrastructure of opportunity for the next generation” ) spells out in great detail, North Carolina is home to both some of the best and most hopeful and worst and most worrisome aspects of the 21st Century economy. The report puts it this way:
“In much of today’s South, economic and demographic vibrancy exist side-by-side, as veritable next-door neighbors, with poverty, underemployment, educational disparities, and stagnant social mobility. The time-worn descriptions of Southern dichotomies—Old South vs. New South, affluent urban vs. poor rural—do not fully capture the complex set of challenges now facing Southern policy makers, civic and business leaders, and engaged citizens.”
And make no mistake, North Carolina is at the epicenter of this phenomenon – especially when it comes to the central issue highlighted in the report – the chances of young people to break out of poverty and into the middle class. As MDC staffer Alyson Zandt wrote in a blog post yesterday on The Progressive Pulse :
“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.”
In other words, even as hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians enjoy unprecedented wealth, comfort and freedom, for millions more such enjoyments are little more than a pipe dream. What’s more, the public structures and institutions with real prospects of helping to narrow this gap and making real opportunity more widely available are under assault. Again, here’s the MDC report:
“State by state, the region has experienced a prolonged period of disinvestment, a pulling back from public services. To some extent, the cause can be attributed to the drop in tax revenues resulting from the recession; the states have legal mandates to operate within a balanced budget. But disinvestment also stemmed from policy decisions to cut or hold the line on taxes and to reduce services within limited revenues. While private employment has rebounded in several sectors, state and local government cutbacks have contributed to weaker job markets in the states.”
Going forward: Third World or First?
And so it is that regardless of what happens in today’s election, political leaders in North Carolina of all parties and ideologies must soon come to grips with a very fundamental question:
What kind of a state should North Carolina become? Should it be a state, as is the case in so much of the developing world and the old Soviet bloc, in which a majority of children realistically have no meaningful paths to pursue or chances of fulfilling their dreams or one, as used to be the case in much of the United States, in which virtually everyone has an opportunity to attain a middle class life?
Assuming that most North Carolinians of all ideologies and parties believe in the latter option, the only real question then becomes: How do we get there?
Let’s hope the people wrestling with such choices pay close attention to the “State of the South.” For while the report pays homage to both a strong market economy and political pragmatism in laying out the course it charts, there can be no doubt that, ultimately, its authors come down firmly on the side of intentional public solutions – what it calls “purposeful policies and systemic actions” in shaping the future and constructing an “infrastructure of opportunity.”
Without such an infrastructure, the report rightfully makes clear, most of the children of 2014 face a dim future as the adults of 2024, 2034 and 2044.
And so, whatever the results tonight, we would all do well to recommit ourselves tomorrow to doing whatever it takes to build that infrastructure.