Last fall, Winston-Salem State University began a very special effort. We launched the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) with generous support from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. As an economics professor at WSSU, I’m keenly interested in this question: Why is Forsyth County third from the bottom in terms of economic mobility in the entire United States? If you’re born poor here, the odds of climbing up the economic ladder are only worse in two Indian reservations in South Dakota, according to a nationwide 2015 study by Stanford economist Raj Chetty.
In the immediate area around our university, many families have lived for generations in poverty. They would not find this finding surprising. The reasons are manifold, including the fact that generations ago, U.S. 52 divided Winston-Salem on racial lines — with the east side comprised primarily of African-American families.
I call it a “tale of two cities.” For example, let’s look at an area known as census tract 6.0, on the east side of highway 52, where 2,072 people live. In that small collection of city blocks, 51 percent of people live below the federal poverty line. The median household income is just $14,115. Eighty-six percent are African American, and 11.3 percent are Hispanic/Latino. With 80 percent of households renting, 8.4 percent are evicted from their homes each year.
Now let’s travel about a mile west to the other side of highway 52, and visit census tract 12.0, where 2,108 people live in a far wealthier section of town. Here, 86 percent of the households are white. There is a 0 percent poverty rate and a 1 percent eviction rate. The median household income is $75,089, or more than five times higher.
I have a wooden ladder propped against a wall in my office. It helps me stay focused on what can seem like an overwhelming problem in our county. In places like census tract 6.0, people face a series of broken ladder rungs that punish all but the most resolute. There is no magic elevator waiting for them.
What are those broken rungs? How do we repair them so people can create their own upward journey and take pride in doing so? To find out, this fall we chose four CSEM faculty members from disciplines of economics, psychology, data analytics and information technology, with each pursuing a fascinating research question related to economic mobility. Next year, it may be health, transportation and criminal justice.
Yet CSEM is more than about producing first-rate scholarship. We also plan to present the results of our research to the mayor, the Winston-Salem City Council, the Forsyth County Commissioners and the North Carolina state legislature.
We recognize that in the past, some remedies have faced logjams because more resources for the east side has meant fewer for the west side. These types of zero-sum solutions can end up dividing and angering us rather than bringing us together as a city.
I believe there are ways to have “win-win” solutions that help citizens, improve business investment and strengthen the tax base. CSEM will be at the forefront of sponsoring such innovative ideas.
Community participation is essential. Toward that end, we’ll be sponsoring events and speakers, including Gregory Price, who is a nationally respected economist from Morehouse College. Price investigates how ex-convicts can have successful careers as entrepreneurs.
Price has insights that may cause us to think about former inmates differently. “If one thinks of, say robbing a liquor store, think about the risk a perpetrator is taking with respect to the loss of personal liberty, and life,” Price told us recently. “In this sense, most crime is equivalent to a risky gamble — much like the decision to start a business as a self-employed entrepreneur.” He argues for better access to bank financing in order to redirect aspirational individuals into positive directions that benefit both themselves and society.
These are the kind of thought-provoking, innovative ideas we’ll present in the months and years ahead. We invite the community to listen and share your thoughts with us.
Craig Richardson is professor of economics at Winston-Salem State University and founding director of the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility.
Gregory Price will speak at 6 p.m. today in Dillard Auditorium in the Anderson Center on the WSSU campus. The event is free and open to the public. To sign up, go to https://csemgregoryprice.eventbrite.com/.