UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute working with Harvard, Brown researchers to revive American Dream

Charlotte skyline
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Charlotte was selected as the flagship city for a new project on economic mobility thanks in part to the unique aptitude of the Institute for Social Capital at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.

The new project, Charlotte Opportunity Insights, is led by Harvard University economics professor Raj Chetty and is a part of the larger Opportunity Insights Institute at Harvard University. In 2013, Chetty and his team including Nathan Hendren and John Friedman, now at Brown University, released a study that ranked Charlotte last for economic mobility among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

The robust and integrated data system at UNC Charlotte’s Institute for Social Capital will provide the study with local administrative data, which was a key factor that drew the Opportunity Insights team to Charlotte. In addition, Charlotte’s proven commitment to address economic opportunity through the community’s Leading on Opportunity Task Force makes the city an attractive choice for this study. According to a recent National Public Radio segment, the task force's report “identified early childhood development, college and career readiness, family stability and strong social networks as key factors that enhance upward mobility. It singled out segregation as a key obstacle. And now, Charlotte officials are learning to use the Opportunity Atlas (an interactive, map-based tool that can trace the root of outcomes, such as poverty and incarceration, back to the neighborhoods in which children grew up) to effectively target some remedies, things like pre-K programs and affordable housing.”

Lori Thomas, director of research and faculty engagement for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, said, “This project draws from and builds on the unique research capacities of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute to respond to pressing community needs and priorities. The Charlotte Opportunity Insights Project will use our ISC integrated community database and engage Urban Institute researchers and UNC Charlotte faculty as community partners in a range of research under the umbrella of economic mobility, from econometrics to understanding lived experience in our neighborhoods.”

Chetty’s new project will take that initial data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service and dig deeper to show how data can inform public policy and investment decisions that impact individuals’ economic opportunity at a local level.

UNC Charlotte will receive a $500,000 grant from the Gambrell Foundation as part of the Charlotte Opportunity Insights partnership. This funding will provide enhancements and increased usability to the Institute for Social Capital’s Community Database, increases in staff capacity to accomplish the study’s activities, and resources for UNC Charlotte faculty to participate in related mobility scholarship.

In turn, the research team led by Chetty will provide local stakeholders with indicators for a diagnostic mobility dashboard, a policy plan with programmatic recommendations, and an evaluation policy memo to inform policy decisions.

A New York Times article on the Harvard initiative references work being done in Charlotte through the Leading on Opportunity Task Force and quotes Ophelia Garmon-Brown, the task force co-chair. A piece by National Public Radio also references Garmon-Brown and the task force work, and a recent Charlotte Observer article mentions the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and how it will work with Harvard’s Raj Chetty.