Understanding our cause: Foundation of The Winston Opportunity Project
Updated: Jan 5
With this post, I will be starting a series of blog posts about the Foundation of the Winston Opportunity Project. These posts will provide more information about the causes, mission, vision, and goals of this organization.
In this post, I talk about the background and foundation upon which The Winston Opportunity Project is built. I detail the socioeconomic mobility issues and struggle for equitable opportunity that we face as a community. In a future post, I will talk specifically about how WOP is working to address these issues. But for now, I hope to provide you with a better understanding of the causes and dynamics of the socioeconomic mobility issue here in Winston Salem.
As a lifelong citizen of Winston Salem, it's hard to fathom that my city is the hardest place in the nation from which to escape childhood poverty. A 2015 landmark economic study done by Harvard economist Raj Chetty showed Winston Salem Forsyth County to be one of the least socioeconomically mobile areas in the nation. The least, in fact, with the exception of two Indian Reservations.1
At the time, the extremely low rate of socioeconomic mobility and the perpetual cycle of intergenerational poverty that crippled the impoverished in Forsyth County seemed to be out my reach. But as time progressed, the grim news became a call to action for me and my peers. Driven by my passion for helping my community, I set out to be a part of the solution to the pressing socioeconomic mobility problem in Winston.
Let's take a deeper look at this Harvard study.
This study utilized big data analysis. Examining millions of income records of children and their parents nationwide, the research group sought to find a correlation between where a child grows up and their success later on in life. For Forsyth County, the results were astoundingly negative.
The study found that for every year a child born to impoverished parents lives in Forsyth County, he or she lose 1.1% of average adult income. By the time the child reaches the age of 26, he or she will make roughly $6,200 less annually than someone who grew up in a county rated average for socioeconomic mobility.2 This was the highest loss of income recorded by the study for any standard county in the United States. Out of 2875 counties assessed by this landmark study, there is no place with a worse social mobility profile than Winston Salem (with the exception of two Indian Reservations).
(Check out the interactive map made by the Harvard research group here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/03/upshot/the-best-and-worst-places-to-grow-up-how-your-area-compares.html)
The US Census Bureau reports that 21.7% of Winston Salem residents live below the poverty line. With a population of 247, 945, over 53,000 individuals live are currently living poverty.3 What's just as concerning as the poverty rate is that upward socioeconomic mobility is so difficult. The results of the Harvard Study elucidate that there is no harder place to escape childhood poverty than Winston Salem.
It's also important to recognize that poverty, and thus the lack of mobility associated with it, disproportionately affects minorities in our community. A recent report on childhood poverty done by Forsyth Futures revealed that while 11% of white children under the age of 18 live in poverty, 51% of hispanic children and 43% of African American children live below the poverty line.4
The implications of these statistics are troubling to say the least: today, in our community, to what family you were born, the color of your skin, and where you live have a greater role in determining your future than your talent, your intelligence, and your work ethic.
The Jim Crow South and the crippling effects of racial segregation sowed the seeds for the intergenerational poverty problem we face today. African Americans along with other ethnic groups were subjected to underfunded education and job discrimination and robbed of opportunities for things like higher education. Still today, we the effects of this historical trend. According to Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, college enrollment rates for black and hispanic are almost 10% below that of white students. Moreover, black and hispanic students are concentrated at less selective and lower-funded educational institutions.5
In 2017, the US Department of Labor reported that Blacks and Hispanics living in America earned roughly 50% less than whites (median annual earnings).6 Logan Philon, philanthropist and founder of the Piedmont Renewal Network here in Winston Salem, sites the presence of such a large unskilled workforce among minority groups as the chief issue here.7
More importantly, he argues that this nationwide trend of racial labor disparity was amplified in Winston Salem by the collapse of the unskilled labor market that once characterized the economy of this city. The bankruptcy of Mclean trucking, the decline RJ Reynolds, and the buyout of Piedmont Airlines were just a few of the events that resulted in a massive loss of jobs, according to Philon.8 With few labor opportunities available after the collapse of these industries, the low skill, less educated workforce in Winston Salem began to fall into an inescapable cycle of poverty.
Driving the socioeconomic mobility issue is the absence of equitable opportunity. In other words, the groups that need it the most lack the access to the opportunities that could potentially drive social mobility. These are things like quality education, higher education, and quality job opportunities. Logan Philon provides an example:
"The Innovation Quarter is home to over 120 companies, leading the way in areas such as biotech, information technology, digital media, medical research, and higher education.6 While this is a brilliant achievement for Winston-Salem, it has not proved beneficial to all of the city’s residents. Somewhat counter intuitively, poverty in Winston-Salem has steadily trended upward over the last decade while these new industries have flourished. What’s going on?
The low skill, economically disadvantaged people of Winston-Salem are not the ones filling these new jobs. Winston-Salem has grown in recent years, with many people relocating to take advantage of the exciting job opportunities here in town. Many of these new jobs are being filled by highly skilled, well educated professionals who as a rule are not coming out of Winston’s economically depressed neighborhoods...Many of the people who live closest to Winston-Salem’s vibrant centers of innovation are in reality farthest away."7
So what's the solution? How do we address this issue?
To spur the development of the next generation of a skilled workforce, we need to focus our efforts on providing equitable opportunity in education. Supporting students through their process of educational, academic, and vocational achievement should be a priority as we equip the next generation of leaders, scholars, and career professionals with the tools they need for future success.
Breaking the decades long cycle of poverty in our community is not a simple task, and it will take a consistent and collective effort to break the barriers that keep the impoverished in poverty. At the Winston Opportunity Project, we want to see a future where all youth have what they need to succeed, and we are doing everything we can to make equitable opportunity a reality in this community. We exist to empower and support youth to pursue as they works towards a bright future - one filled with success and prosperity.
1) Raj Chetty. "The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility: Childhood Exposure Effects and County-Level Estimates." Harvard University. 2015, https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/nbhds_paper.pdf
2) Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren. “Data from Chetty and Hendren (2015): Causal Effects, Mobility Estimates and Covariates by County, CZ and Birth Cohort.” Equality of Opportunity, Harvard University. 2015, http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/index.php/data.
3) US Census Bureau. "Winston Salem Quickfacts." US Census Bureau. 2019, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/winstonsalemcitynorthcarolina/POP060210
4) Forsyth Futures. "2020 Key Measures Report." Forsyth Futures. 2020, https://www.forsythfutures.org/key-measures-economy/#economy-child_poverty_geography
5) Anthony P. Carnevale and John Strohl. "Separate and Unequal." Center for Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University. 2013, https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/separate-unequal/#resources
6) US Department of Labor. "Earnings by Sex, Race and Hispanic Ethnicity." Women's Bureau, US Department of Labor. 2017, https://www.dol.gov/agencies/wb/data/earnings
7) Logan Philon. "The Present." The Piedmont Renewal Network. 2019, https://renewalnetwork.org/the-present/
8) Logan Philon. "The Past." The Piedmont Renewal Network. 2019, https://renewalnetwork.org/the-present/