Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan is right that the businesses and people of Charlotte and the rest of North Carolina “have a duty” to improve economic mobility. There are better ways to bring this about than those currently being considered in Charlotte. Economic mobility depends on a market economy with few barriers, which are as likely to come from policies intended to help as from the legacy of deliberate segregation.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force diagnosed some of the right problems—the impact of segregation, the need for social capital, the importance of family stability, early childhood, education, and work—but largely relabeled old solutions as “systemic and structural change.” It seeks ways to build systems that overcome barriers instead of removing barriers and dismantling systems that reinforce them.
Meaningful work is the surest way to advance economically and have a sense of contributing to the community. The report mentions in passing that “many people…do not feel valued and respected. In the words of some residents, they feel as though their ability to contribute to the future of the community is not seriously considered.” Sustainable community development starts with the assets already present. For example, the Hiring Well, Doing Good initiative in Atlanta highlights and inspires businesses that hire workers who would otherwise struggle to find work.
For nearly 30 percent of workers who need a license to perform their jobs, it takes more than a willing employer. Occupational licensing is a significant policy barrier to work and contributes greatly to the two-thirds of jobs that require some kind of post-secondary credential. The Task Force could have explored the opportunity for de-licensing in addition to seeking ways to reduce the cost of education and training.
On education, the task force’s report only mentions charter schools once, even as it suggests steps for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are losing students to charter schools that are better meeting the needs of parents and students. Most students in the area still attend a CMS school, but the task force could have provided a more balanced approach to educational opportunities with more emphasis on how greater educational choices have helped families open new vistas for their children.
Hidebound thinking is most evident in the section on affordable housing, where the group seeks “dramatically expanded funding” and sees inclusionary zoning as an important solution, against all evidence to the contrary. Instead of pouring new funds into projects to coerce developers to build affordable housing, the city could reduce minimum lot size, relax density restrictions, and remove bureaucratic barriers to redevelopment. None of these require the city to spend more, unlike the recommendations of the task force.
A positive step for the task force that requires little new money is its recommendation to promote marriage and “active involvement of fathers in the lives of their children.” The report states, “We believe research is clear about the positive impact of raising a child in a married, two-parent household where the parents also have a healthy relationship.” Recognizing that deliberate efforts at marriage promotion have had scant success, the task force rightly urges the “removal of policy barriers” such as the reduction in government-provided benefits that comes with marriage and additional earnings.
Putting the package together, the task force argues that people should follow the Success Sequence of education, work, then marriage and children. The group focuses more on government and bureaucratic efforts to encourage behavior—with “21 key strategies, 91 recommendations, and over 100 implementation tactics and policy considerations”—than on removing the barriers government has erected to hinder education, work, and family formation.
We can do more to help one another, but the best help comes in a personal relationship with mutual accountability, not in broad strokes with unintended consequences. Freeways intended to promote growth divided neighborhoods, affordable housing projects uprooted families, and benefits to help widows and single moms pre-empted marriages. But removing bureaucratic rules means homeowners can improve their property and rent out space creating new housing options, businesses can start and grow creating new employment options, parents can find educational options that work for their children, and together families and communities can build on their strengths to flourish.