Get a quick (troubling) look at the poverty divide in Mecklenburg County

Get a quick (troubling) look at the poverty divide in Mecklenburg County
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The Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task force was created following the results for this study that found the Charlotte area ranked #50 out of 50 US cities for Opportunity. I believe the mathematical term for that ranking is “abysmal.”

As a way to engage the community on their findings and progress, the Opportunity Task Force set up a newsletter to share results. You can sign up here (and check out the Opportunity Task Force’s mission and baseline presentation here).

Recently, the Opportunity Task Force newsletter included this Mecklenburg County Poverty Snapshot prepared by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. It’s from July and the data is from 2013, but it is absolutely worth a look. Holy cow, is it eye-opening. Here are three things that really stood out to me:

(1) The stark contrast in poverty rates by race

If this isn’t startling, then you’re either a social worker or totally jaded about the community in which you live. The overall poverty rate in the United States in 2013 was 14.5%. Are you comfortable with the fact that roughly twice as many Hispanic families in Mecklenburg County live in poverty relative to the national average? I’m not.


The fact that there is even a “children” column here is unsettling at best, and seeing double-digit poverty rates in that column is downright gross.

(2) What it means to be “in poverty” in Charlotte

It’s easy to look at a stat like “poverty rate,” picture a Victorian-era street urchin with fingerless gloves and soot on their cheeks, feel sorry for them for three seconds, then immediately go back to drinking your $4 latte (like I did! I’m drinking one as I write this!).

But what exactly does “in poverty” mean? What does a “living wage” mean to your neighbors and fellow Panthers fans, the people who wait in line next to you at the DMV and that you see at the grocery store?

Well, the Federal Poverty Level for a family of three is defined as a total income of $18,552 per year. That’s not a whole lot for three people. And that designation of “in poverty” is only for those families under that threshold. It’s not like there’s a magical jump to $75,000 in income for everyone that isn’t “in poverty.”

There’s another gap of below-standard living just above poverty. For a family of three, the “living wage” is $48,680, which translates to an hourly wage of $23. This means there are even more people/families that aren’t technically “in poverty” that still maintain a standard of living that is below “scraping by.” Yikes.

The chart above breaks down that living wage into monthly expenses. A couple things to keep in mind when you look at this:

  • That $4,057 per month is just to cover the basics. There’s no line item for student loan payments or 401k contributions or saving for a down payment on a house or soccer camp registration fees or professional wardrobe budget in that number. These are the expenses for a family that’s just barely making it.
  • This is for the families that are meeting the living wage standard. Remember those 19.9% of black families in Mecklenburg Country living “in poverty” in the chart above? Yeah, their income is less than half of this.

(3) There is a Rich Charlotte and a Poor Charlotte, and it ain’t hard to see where they are

These maps are from the Opportunity Task Force baseline presentation. You know that image where if you look at it one way you see a vase but if you squint you really see two people kissing? That’s this map, except this map is super depressing and loaded with societal implications.

This shows the same geographic area, but depending on how you squint your eyes, you’ll either see a very, very rich community or a very, very poor one. The map on the left shows the percentage of households with incomes above $200,000 per year. The darker the color, the more people there are in that area. In the chart on the right, the darker the color, the more people there are making less than $18,552 per year.

It’s almost what you would expect in a map of incomes in Feudal Europe. The contrast between those two Charlottes is impossible to ignore, and the trajectories of those disparate communities are not moving close together.

There are a million hot political takes you can lob about how we got here. Or you can bemoan the actions of previous generations for setting us up to be in this situation, but that’s all largely irrelevant to the task at hand.

The fact remains that the very richest people in our community and the very poorest live close to one another, and the disparity between how they experience Charlotte could not be more extreme.

There’s much to be done to fix this situation and it certainly won’t happen overnight, but I encourage you, at a minimum, to check out what the Opportunity Task Force is doing to try and tackle this problem. Bringing these two Charlottes closer together is everyone’s responsibility.

Cover image via the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force

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