Task force focused on helping Charlotte’s poor: “We are not going back to business as usual”

It’s been almost two years since the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force was created to figure out how to change the trajectory for the this community’s poor. In that time, little has changed, and challenges have escalated. On Monday, t
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It’s been almost two years since the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force was created to figure out how to change the trajectory for the this community’s poor. In that time, little has changed, and challenges have escalated. On Monday, t
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Task force focused on Charlotte’s poor: ‘We are not going back to business as usual’

By Karen Garloch, Ely Portillo and Bruce Henderson

kgarloch@charlotteobserver.com

March 27, 2017 10:21 AM

After almost two years of study, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force unveiled a wide-ranging report Monday on how to change the trajectory for the community’s poor.

The sweeping document – 92 pages and nearly 100 recommendations – surprised few and disappointed some by basically outlining a litany of well-documented urban problems – from the need for more affordable birth control and more affordable housing to access to day care, better-paying jobs and job training.

“There’s nothing earth-shattering,” said Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham. “We already know the things that need to happen. We need the courage to do it.”

Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas, which helped fund the task force, seemed to try to lower expectations for the packed audience at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center: “If you came to this convocation hoping for a silver bullet to advance the cause, we will disappoint you. There is no silver bullet.”

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Mayor Jennifer Roberts added: “This report marks the beginning of our work; a blueprint for us to work together. We are not going back to business as usual.”

Action plans will be left for the next phase, to be led by a new public-private task force that will seek funding and implement recommendations.

The United Way of Central Carolinas and the Foundation for the Carolinas will provide initial funding for the group, which will function as a “central nervous system” for taking action. The group’s co-chairs – Bank of America executive Andrea Smith and former N.C. Teacher of the Year James E. Ford – were introduced to a standing ovation.

Brian Collier, a foundation executive who assisted the task force, said the second group will set goals and “build a dashboard” that will show what needs to be done and help evaluate progress.

One criticism of the report is that it doesn’t make specific recommendations about how to break up pockets of poverty and segregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Instead, it defers to the school board’s ongoing student reassignment efforts and urges the CMS board to be “courageous” in its decisions.

But Collier said the second task force will assist the school board by helping to “build community will” for its decisions. High-poverty schools are not just a problem for CMS; they’re the result of segregation in housing, transportation and other services, he said. “We’ll need to provide air cover for those who need to make difficult decisions.”

Braxton Winston, a Davidson College graduate and one of the leaders of protests last fall after the police shooting of an African-American man, said the report’s impact will hinge on what happens next.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to get done,” Winston said. “The proof is going to be in whether action is taken, and not just more recommendations, not just more task forces. … I think there’s a lot of inertia in the city on all sides.”

Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl said he is encouraged by the work so far. After the September protests, McColl urged leaders to not just “mouth platitudes and think everything’s going to be fine.”

“The ball will be moved,” said McColl. He said he’s been talking with business leaders about possibilities to hire more entry-level workers in apprenticeship-style jobs. “I’ve observed that the business community is ready to act. That’s important, because they bring not just money, but people to the game.”

Tale of two cities

The opportunity task force formed in May 2015 in response to a 2014 study from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley which showed that poor children in Charlotte are less likely to escape poverty compared to their peers in America’s 50 largest cities.

The cost for the report has been about $400,000 so far, paid by the John M. Belk Endowment, the Knight Foundation, the Foundation for the Carolinas, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Charlotte Will and the city and county governments.

Adding urgency to the task force’s work was the eruption of violent protests that rocked Charlotte in September, following the fatal Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. In angry Charlotte City Council meetings afterward, some residents pointed to the city’s underlying economic inequality as a root cause of the protests.

Also, rising rents have exacerbated the problem of housing affordability. The average rent in Charlotte now tops $1,000 and is up 35 percent in the past five years. Many new luxury apartments have replaced more affordable buildings as desirable areas are redeveloped. City Council has set a goal of creating or preserving 5,000 affordable units in the next three years, but that won’t meet the estimated need.

“Sometimes disruption can be a gift,” said Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a Novant Health physician executive and co-chair of the task force. “Had we been 46th out of 50, it probably wouldn’t have made the news” and prompted Trevor Fuller to create the task force when he was chairman of the Mecklenburg County commissioners.

Fuller said the message he took from Monday’s report is “not to do things the same way we’ve always done them.” More people need to be at the table, and more voices listened to, when decisions are made, he said. “This is a time when people of good will come together for a common purpose. Now is the time. This is the place. … The community is watching what we do.”

When she was introduced, Garmon-Brown received a standing ovation because she returned to work only recently following surgeries for brain and kidney cancer last fall. But she kept her focus on the topic at hand: “We know that there has been a tale of two cities in Charlotte for a long time. … Segregation is huge in Charlotte. … We looked at 400 years of how we got here.”

As part of its work, the task force held 30 listening sessions across the city and used 51 experts. Garmon-Brown summarized the findings this way: “It is about the children, but it’s also about the families that wrap around these children and the systems and policies that the families live within.”

Task force co-chair Dee O’Dell, senior vice president of US Bank, also cited segregation as the single largest problem in Charlotte. “There are immediate actions we can take … but this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

The report made recommendations in three key areas – early childhood care and education, college and career readiness, and family and child stability. O’Dell stressed the importance of social capital in affecting change. “When I connect a friend’s child to a job opportunity, I am using my social capital for their benefit,” he said. “If we are willing to utilize our social capital and begin to connect others to knowledge, access and opportunity, we can have dramatic positive impact on these three (areas).”

Task force findings

Among the report’s findings:

▪ Charlotte’s goal of 5,000 affordable housing units preserved or created is good but ultimately won’t meet city’s needs. The report calls for an increase in Charlotte’s affordable housing bonds from $15 million every two years to $50 million and for “dramatically” expanding other funding sources.

▪ Because research documents the importance of early brain development, the task force recommended eliminating the waiting list of more than 3,000 for day care for children from infancy to age 3.

▪ Recognizing the benefits of two-parent families and delaying pregnancy, the task force recommended increasing access to long-acting reversible birth control, such as implants and intrauterine devices. Noting that this is a “sensitive subject” because of North Carolina’s “ugly” history of eugenics, Garmon-Brown stressed that women should be offered choices as well as “scholarships” to help pay for the medicines.

The report also explains that the task force purposely chose not to address three topics, including education reform, which it left to CMS. It also did not tackle the idea of increasing the minimum wage or providing better access to quality health care.

It praised the recently announced effort of Charlotte’s two hospital systems, Carolinas HealthCare System and Novant Health, to collaborate on initiatives that will improve access to low-income and under-served populations. And it said “research is split on the short-run impact of a minimum wage increase” and “can mask key underlying workforce skill needs.”

Concerns expressed

Even before Monday’s presentation began, some in the audience expressed concern the report would be “anti-climactic,” simply outlining problems that people already know exist. Others were disappointed that their favorite issues were not addressed.

▪ LGBTQ activist Matt Comer tweeted: “Disappointed in @OpportunityCLT. Not a single mention in 90+ pg report of #LGBT ppl, HIV/AIDS and a plan that leads w/ abstinence.”

▪ CMS board Vice Chair Elyse Dashew tweeted that simply urging the school board to be courageous “isn’t going to cut it. Words ring hollow w/o commitment + collaboration.”

▪ Kenneth Schorr, executive director of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, regretted that the presenters spoke only of providing a “pathway to a living wage,” and not just calling for a “living wage.”

▪ United Way, in a statement, called the report a starting point and said it is already working on some of the recommendations with its partners.

“We know this isn’t going to be a quick fix,” the agency said. “It’s going to take time. It’s going to take resources. And it’s going to take patience. But, we are excited to shift the direction now to what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”

▪ Novant Health executive Jesse Cureton, a co-founder of One Charlotte, said the report “made it clear for all of us that this is generational work.” One Charlotte, created after the September protests, seeks to move the city forward through a focus on housing, jobs, social equity and removing barriers to employment.

The report’s long list of recommendations illustrates the complexity of the problems that will take hard work to improve, Cureton said. “They did enough assessing, overlaid with national statistics, that showed we have moved to a point where it’s time for action,” he said.

▪ Crisis Assistance Ministry, which helps people in financial distress, took the task force through an intensive, hands-on poverty simulation as part of its research. The task force’s work is the first time the community has taken such a hard look at its economic ailments, the ministry said.

“What we think holds promise is that this next step is committed to going out and hearing the voices of the people in the neighborhoods,” said spokeswoman Tovi Martin.

Staff writers Ann Doss Helms and Roland Wilkerson contributed.

Karen Garloch: 704-358-5078, @kgarloch