4% of Kids Born Into Poverty in Charlotte Have a Chance of Ever Leaving Poverty.

Posted on January 27, 2017


During the fall of 2016, I started a doctor of ministry program at Southeastern University in which I am focusing on the implications facing kids that are born into poverty. This was inspired by the heartbreaking statistic that was released recently that children that are born into poverty in Charlotte have a 4% chance of ever coming out of poverty. I can’t sit by idly and not do my part.

This is much longer than a normal blog post. It is a portion of the first research project that I completed on the topic of generational poverty. If you’re interested, I will continue to post what I’m learning on this blog.

I can’t un-learn what I’ve learned. I can’t un-see what I’ve seen. And I’m hoping that you’ll be moved by extensive research and choose to not look away. This is not easy, and it’s not quick. However, it is very much worth the effort.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for caring.


A joint effort between Harvard University and the University of California Berkely was conducted over the course of the past several years. Their findings came out in 2014, and the results sent shockwaves through the city of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Charlotte is a city that has traditionally enjoyed the status as a “top ten city to live in America” from multiple media outlets, including Forbes Magazine.[1] Charlotte has enjoyed the reputation as the number two banking capital in the nation,[2] the home to multiple professional sports teams, and a vibrant entrepreneurial community. Additionally, Charlotte boasts a bustling corporate city center, along with a vibrant nightlife. However, this university research project uncovered some uncomfortable truths about this glistening city in the New South.

Charlotte ranked fiftieth out of fifty large cities studied in America in relation to a person’s ability to achieve upward mobility if they are born into poverty.[3] To highlight this point, their research showed that a child that is born into poverty in Charlotte has a 4% chance of escaping poverty.[4]

This led researchers to begin referring to the narrative of Charlotte as “The Tale of Two Cities.” On one hand, there are seemingly endless opportunities for those that are from the middle and upper class. On the other hand, those that are born into poverty are stricken with a curse of generational poverty that is yet to be broken.

After millions of dollars and countless hours of research, five determining factors rose to the surface as to why a child that is born into poverty would have such a difficult time ever escaping this reality. They include: segregation, inequality, education, social capital, and family structure.


One of the problems that have surfaced over the years has been the lack of acknowledgement that America is still a deeply divided country. It is impossible to fix things that people refuse to admit are broken. This is true of the segregation that is occurring in school systems across our country. Segregation can come in various forms, but racial and socioeconomic segregation is something that this research project has focused on specifically. Drew Hart addresses issues of segregation in his book Trouble I’ve Seen. He states, “When we can be honest about how our entire society is deeply racialized, we will be ready to move forward.”[5]

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has been on the forefront of national news for many years for their efforts toward desegregating (and subsequently re-segregating) their schools. Few school reforms have been as fully implemented and successful as the desegregation plan that was implemented by CMS.[6]

President Ronald Reagan drew incredible criticism for a speech that he gave in Charlotte denouncing the desegregation of the public schools as “a social experiment that nobody wants.”[7] The local newspaper strongly denounced the president. They published a scathing article titled “You Were Wrong Mr. President.” In this article, they stated, “CMS’s greatest achievement of the past twenty years is not the city’s impressive new skyline or its strong, growing economy. It’s proudest achievement is its fully integrated school system.”[8 Within 2 years of the president’s visit, CMS began a slow drift toward resegregation that continued until the end of the last century and rapidly accelerated in the first decade of the twenty-first century.[9]

Another ambitious effort has been spearheaded by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Project LIFT was launched by involving local foundations that raised $55 million over a five-year period to improve educational outcomes in CMS’s lowest performing high school and its feeder schools, all of which are hyper segregated racially and socioeconomically. Ashley Park PreK-8 School has been a recipient of this generous partnership between individuals and the state. Even with all of the resources flowing toward this school, it still remains one of the highest segregated schools in our state.

Studies have found that as the student populations in CMS schools became more black, the most highly qualified teachers transferred out, leaving the desegregated schools with less qualified teachers.[10] This is a sad reality for many schools like Ashley Park that are trying to bring excellence to the classrooms of high poverty schools. If there are not qualified teachers in place, the cycle of poverty will continue for these students that are growing up in segregated schools. Additionally, research has also shown that students from integrated schools demonstrate lower levels of racial fears and stereotypes, and experience less intergenerational perpetuation of racism and stereotypes across multiple institutional settings.[11]


In the form of a gripping letter from his father, Ta-Henisi Coates released a book that highlighted the realities of raising a black child in the deeply segregated culture of America. He implores his son to look at the realities around him and to vigilantly defend himself against the inequities that are present toward black families. He states,

“I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.”[13]

He is asking his son to be aware of the systematic inequities present in our society and to rise above them.

The United States is often hailed as the “land of opportunity,” a society in which a child’s chances of success depend little on his or her family background. Is this reputation warranted? Tavis Smiley and Cornel West refer to this as “poverty of opportunity.” They state, “The myth of American exceptionalism, of being the best of the best, overshadows an inconvenient truth. We are a nation where poverty of opportunity is dangerously close to becoming a permanent reality.”[14]

Being in poverty is rarely about a lack of intelligence or ability.[15] Many people today are poor and hungry largely because a few people with enormous power neglect and/or mistreat the powerless. Using their unequal power, they create structures that benefit themselves and benefit others.[16] Inequitable systems that are present in our society today continue to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. Poor countries are poor because those that have been placed in positions of influence make choices that create poverty.[17]


Education is something that should carry a sense of equity and innocence for America’s youth. However, the imbalance of resources given to public schools that are located in the affluent areas as opposed to high poverty communities is nothing short of staggering. “There is something warped about a society that has invested $300 billion for the expansion of the prison industrial complex’s jails, prisons, and juvenile justice institutions while claiming it has no money for schools.”[18]

Dr. Payne makes the straightforward statement, “An education is the key to getting out of, and staying out of, generational poverty.”[19]

One of the underlying issues of the education system is non-verbal communication that is referred to by Dr. Payne as the “hidden rules” that are present for those that are living in poverty. She states that schools and business operate from a set of rules that are present in the middle class. These are assumptions about life, access to technology, support in the family structure, etc.[20] Dr. Payne makes the observation that a public school can be one of the only places that a child born into poverty can learn the hidden rules due to their exposure to people that are growing up in a different reality than themselves.[21]

Jonathan Kozol spent time with students in a high poverty community of St. Louis, Missouri. During his time with this community he made an incredible observation about the unfairness of children growing up in the unequal system of school systems in poor communities. He states,

“Almost anyone who visits in the schools of East St. Louis, even for a short time, comes away profoundly shaken. These are innocent children, after all. They have done nothing wrong. They have committed no crime. They are too young to have offended us in any way at all.”[22]

All too often, children are paying the price of inequities that have been dictated by those that sit in the seats of power. Their innocence and brilliance is at stake as communities across America blindly continue marching forward to the beat of capitalism.

Another factor in the school systems is the retention of top-level teachers in poor communities. All too often, high poverty schools battle a large percentage of turnovers among their faculty. The reasons vary, but the inequitable distribution of funds makes teaching in poor communities less attractive for teachers whose performance is based largely on the standardized testing scores of their students. Robert Putnam advocates for better hiring practices for teachers in high poverty communities in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. He states, “Hiring more and better teachers at higher salaries to teach in high poverty schools would be a very good way to narrow class disparities.”[23]

Social Capital

Raj Chetty and a team of researchers from Harvard University conducted a study on the effect that relationships have on individuals and families in high poverty communities. The overwhelming results showed that exposure to relationships with people that are not living in poverty greatly increase the likelihood of those individuals to come out of poverty themselves. In a summary of their research, he states, “Our findings suggest that efforts to integrate disadvantaged families into mixed-income communities are likely to reduce the persistence of poverty across generations.”[24]

This research clearly shows that the environment of an individual is directly related to their likelihood to escape poverty.

The power of mentoring is not to be underestimated for children that are born into poverty. U.S. News and World Report explores the topic of relationships for kids in poor neighborhoods, and they found that mentorship from someone that is not living in poverty is one of the most important elements involved in upward mobility. They state, “Locate a resilient kid and you will also find a caring adult – or several – who has guided them.”[25]

On a different side of this equation, it is also important for individuals that are not living in poverty to listen and learn long enough to even understand there is a problem with a lack of social capital for individuals in poor communities. The Washington Post exposed a shocking statistic in 2014 and published it in their newspaper.

They state that three quarters of white people do not have any close friends
that are non-white.[26]

The implication here is that racial division leads to a lack of relationship between whites and minorities. Until this chasm is bridged, there will continue to be a lack of social capital for minorities living in poverty.

Another factor leading to a lack of social capital is the criminalization of African-Americans in our criminal justice system. It is almost impossible to build relationships that will lead to equitable employment opportunities while incarcerated, and Michelle Alexander exposed an alarming disparity in the amount of African Americans in prison as related to other races. Furthermore, once a person has been convicted of a felony, their chances of even getting in front of someone to interview for a job greatly decreases. Alexander states, that these offenses and blemishes on their records often make it virtually impossible for ex-offenders to integrate into the mainstream society and economy upon release.[27]

Family Structure

 The faculty, staff, and administration of Ashley Park encourages the students to think critically, engage problems with creativity, and to become scholars that uniquely solve problems. Each day, the team at Ashley Park is working toward raising up the future leaders of Charlotte, North Carolina. However, this support is all-too-often not present in the form of parental engagement. This includes helping their children with homework, forming a healthy parent-teacher association (which is run by a grandmother in the school), and asking about their friendships at school. All of these elements of a healthy family structure are associated with higher academic performance, better socioemotional skills, and other facets of student behavior such as less use of drugs and alcohol.[28] Educational researchers Anne Henderson and Nancy Berla state, “When parents are involved at school, their children go further in school, and the schools they go to are better.”[29]

The alarming rate of single-parent households breeds instability in the family structure that deeply impacts children. Putnam states, “Children who grow up without their biological father perform worse on standardized tests, earn lower grades, and stay in school for fewer years, regardless of race and class.”[30] This shows the importance of having a holistic view of education that extends to educating parents on the importance of engaging with their children about what is happening at school each day. As family specialist Isabel Sawhill says, “Generalizations are dangerous; many single parents are doing a terrific job under difficult circumstances. But on average, children from single parent families do worse in school and in life.”[31]

The National Academy of Sciences came out with a landmark study on the way the brain works and how it affects human behavior. In their findings, they state that the environments and experiences that are encountered from before a child is born into their early childhood years affect virtually every aspect of early human development. Stated more simply, early life experiences impact a person’s life in a most powerful way. [32]

This research project was incredibly helpful, painful, eye-opening, convicting, and encouraging. I’m realizing that even though there’s incredible inequities that I’ve never even considered, I’ve also seen that there are great people doing great work, like the teachers and administrators at Ashley Park PreK-8 School. I refuse to accept that the narrative of the past several generations is the narrative of the future for these kids that are born into high poverty communities.

God has perfectly wired the body of Christ to make a difference. However, we’ve got to take the time to listen, learn, repent, and eventually allow our hearts to break. However, we don’t stay in a place of despair. We will seek to act on what we’ve learned, realizing that we can make a difference.

If you want to be a part of engaging in this work, contact us. We have a variety of opportunities for you to practically get involved. (dan@centercitychurch.net)

We all have a part to play, and we can all make a difference.


[1] Karsten Strauss. “10 Cities Americans Are Moving To Right Now (And 10 They Are Leaving).” Forbes Magazine. June 7, 2016. Accessed December 12, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/karstenstrauss/2016/06/07/10-cities-americans-are-moving-to-right-now-and-10-they-are-leaving/#4b68bbd23e91.

[2] “Charlotte, NC.” Forbes. Accessed December 12, 2016. http://www.forbes.com/places/nc/charlotte/.

[3] Lisa Rab. “The Conversation Issue: 50. Our Lowest Low.” The Conversation Issue: 50. Our Lowest Low. February 5, 2016. Accessed December 12, 2016. http://www.charlottemagazine.com/Charlotte-Magazine/February-2016/The-Conversation-Issue-50-Our-Lowest-Low/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Drew G. I. Hart. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2016. Location 712. Kindle.

[6] Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Stephen Samuel Smith, and Amy Hawn Nelson. Yesterday,  Today, and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2015. 3.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Ibid., 3.

[10] C.K. Jackson. (2009). Student demographics, teacher sorting and teacher quality: Evidence from the end of school desegregation. Retrieved December 12, 2016, from Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations site: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/workingpapers/78/

[11] Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, Stephen Samuel Smith, and Amy Hawn Nelson. Yesterday,  Today, and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte. 12.

[12] Thomas W. Hanchett Sorting out the New South City: Charlotte and Its Neighborhoods. Charlotte, NC. The University of North Carolina Press. 1998.

[13] Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. 107.

[14] Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. The Rich and the Rest of Us. 45.

[15] Ruby Payne. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. 62.

[16] Ronald J. Sider. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. 133.

[17] Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. 68.

[18] Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press, 2010. 127.

[19] Ruby Payne. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. 63.

[20] Ibid., 3.

[21] Ibid., 62.

[22] Jonathan Kozol. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. New York: Crown Pub., 1991. 49.

[23] Putnam, Robert D. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 166.

[24] Raj Chetty. “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children.” The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children:, May 2015. Accessed December 12, 2016. http://www.equality-of opportunity.org/assets/documents/mto_exec_summary.pdf

[25] J. Shapiro, Friedman, D., Meyer, M., & Loftus, M. (1996, November, 11). Invincible Kids. U.S. News and World Report, pp. 62-71.

[26] Christopher Ingraham. “Three Quarters of Whites Don’t Have Any Non-white Friends.” August 25, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/08/25/three-quarters-of-whites-dont-have-any-non-white-friends/?utm_term=.9dcbddb5ef64.

[27] Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. 143.

[28] Robert Putnam. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. 167.

[29] Ibid., 167.

[30] Ibid., 78.

[31] Isabel V. Sawhill. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2014. 6.

[32] Robert Putnam. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. 109.

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