Why it’s worth re-examining the Chetty Study on upward mobility

Charlotte can and should do a better job of supporting its most vulnerable communities, authors Tchernavia Montgomery and Jennifer Roberts write.

Questions have arisen recently about the data used for the famous Harvard/Chetty study, that in 2014 ranked Charlotte 50th out of 50 cities for upward economic mobility.

Some believe that the numbers may not have been accurate, and perhaps upward mobility is actually not so bad here.

Really? Are we re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

Anyone who has worked in health and human services in Mecklenburg County knows full well that living in our region is a challenge to hourly workers, unskilled workers, people of color, those with chronic illnesses, formerly incarcerated individuals, and recent immigrants. Whether we are 50th or 46th should not change our efforts to improve.

As executive director of Care Ring, I know this well. My knowledge of those who struggle is deep. What are we still doing wrong?

Much like the Titanic, our safety net and systems of care are built for some, but not all. As on that ship, illness and death are not equitable across class – the poor experience a far worse fate.

As I celebrate my one-year anniversary as the first person of color to lead our nearly seven-decades old organization, I appreciate more deeply how fortunate I have been to have had opportunity for upward mobility. Twenty years ago, I walked through these same doors, not as its leader, but as a patient. I had lost my job and had no health insurance, but the healthcare I received at Care Ring was worth much more than the charitable rate I paid.

I was treated with dignity and respect, and even then, before “social determinants of health” were commonly understood, the staff recognized my socioeconomic challenge and the toll that being unemployed had taken on my life. As a single parent with no local support system, their interventions for me were timely and critical.

Safety net programs are a necessity for vulnerable families. Today, Care Ring serves approximately 8,000 individuals in our community who are either uninsured or underinsured, and COVID has presented unique challenges.

As a former recipient of government entitlement programs, home visitation services and public housing, I am an example of how safety net programs can and will work when services are well coordinated and targeted. I personally owe my inspiration to become the social worker I am today as a result of the services I received through a maternal child health and teen parent support program.

This program, much like Care Ring’s Nurse-Family Partnership, educated me about my child’s health, but also provided the social-emotional support I myself needed to effectively parent. At the impressionable age of 15, I felt empowered by these holistic reinforcements, bolstering my sense of self, and igniting the initial flame that would catapult my journey towards where I am today.

Forced resilience used to survive adversity is a symptom of a broken system, but necessary for those in poverty. Improved integration of support systems equals increased access. I was lucky to have found Care Ring, but I keep asking, how can we ensure that all find the support network they need?

In our community, individual and corporate donations (those of time, talent and/or treasure) are not simply investments into organizations, they are investments in our families – who benefit generationally from lives made healthier and happier.

Charlotte is a community of wealth, rich not just in dollars but also in spirit and intent. The continued strengthening of our safety net system is vital to our ability to improve economic mobility for all. Heightening funding opportunities, generating focused capacity-building initiatives, and protecting our dedicated workforce are all means of achieving this goal.

We can center our combined strengths on developing an integrated plan for success that is both measurable and validated by those who do the work each day. As the executive director of Care Ring, I will be the first to admit that we service providers do not have all the answers. But we get closer by leaning in, to purposefully build trust with those we serve. I am not the leader I am today because of my education. I am the leader I am today because of my experience.

As our community sets sail for our continued voyage towards a healthier and more equitable tomorrow, we ask are we simply rearranging the chairs on a ship with seats for some, or are we committed building a new vessel with a place for all?

Jennifer Roberts is former Charlotte mayor and former Mecklenburg County commissioner. Tchernavia Montgomery is executive director of Care Ring, a nonprofit that provides health care services to the uninsured and underinsured.


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