Youth Economic Mobility in Greenville County

On May 4, 2015, many of us in Greenville County, SC were confronted by an interactive feature in the New York Times online.

The Atlas of Economic Mobility, developed through research by Raj Chetty and Nathanial Hendren, revealed that we live in one of the worst counties in the U.S. for helping poor children up the income ladder.  The article says of Greenville County:

It ranks 24th out of 2,478 counties, better than almost no county in the nation.

How can this be, we wondered?  Our Greenville County, where we’re so proud of our prosperity? How can we be not at the top of a positive ranking, a position we enjoy frequently, but at the very bottom of a list that lays bare the fact that not everyone is enjoying the same benefits of our community’s success?  Julio Hernandez, Associate Director of Hispanic Outreach with Clemson University, recently shared his own story of economic mobility at the February 2018 meeting of Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy, and said that for thousands of families and young people in Greenville County, prosperity seems to be out of reach.

Thanks to the leadership of MDC, Inc., a group of key stakeholders* from Greenville County is seeking to understand exactly how this can be and to develop what MDC calls the “infrastructure of opportunity” to lift poor children up the income ladder.  Greenville is one of four communities convened by MDC to form the Network for Southern Economic Mobility, which is “committed to increasing upward economic mobility for youth and young adults in the lowest income brackets.”

Understanding the data

The first step of the team’s work is careful analysis of the data regarding economic mobility in Greenville County.  Recently, Greenville team members Hernandez; Jil Littlejohn, President and CEO of the Urban League of the Upstate; and Gage Weekes, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Hollingsworth Funds, presented to GPP members on what the data say about Greenville’s terrible ranking.  Some of the key points:

  • Children in Greenville County have only a 4.7% chance of rising from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of income in our community.
  • We’ve seen a 62% increase in the poverty rate in Greenville County since 2000, a paradox since many residents and businesses have seen an economic boom over that same period.
  • Poverty is tied to race, and race is linked with age. Students in Greenville County Schools who are black or Hispanic are much more likely to receive free or reduced price meals, a strong indicator of poverty in schools, and people under the age of 15 in Greenville County are more likely to be of color (41% of the population) compared to people over 65 (just 16%).
  • Parental educational attainment is a strong predictor of their adult children’s income: 47% of adult children of non-college graduates are in the bottom quintile of income compared to just 10% of adult children of college graduates.
  • Only 30.3% of jobs in Greenville County today offer median hourly earnings above a livable wage, and of those, 72.6% require more than a high school education.

So what do these data say about why people get “stuck” at the bottom of earning potential?  Gage described Chetty’s research on the five factors that affect mobility:

  • Residential segregation – to what extent are neighborhoods integrated? Are there connections between home value in a neighborhood and the predominant race of the people living there?
  • Income inequality – Is there a significant gap between the “haves” and the “have nots?” How big is the income gap from the lowest quintile of income distribution and the highest?
  • Low school quality – How do schools in the area compare to others on test scores, passing and graduation rates and other metrics? How dependent are schools on funds from PTA and the community to fill the gap from what the government provides?
  • Family structure – Households with two married parents are consistently linked with higher incomes. In Greenville County, the percentage of children living in single parent families has increased from 18% in 1980 to 29% in 2010. Are households in the neighborhood headed by a single parent or are children living with kin such as grandparents or aunts and uncles?
  • Social capital – Do residents enjoy strong connections with neighbors, family members, faith communities, and other people and institutions that can lend them a helping hand?


Improving outcomes

MDC’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility (NSEM) will support Greenville’s team – along with teams from Athens, GA, Chattanooga, TN, and Jacksonville, FL – for a two-year period as they seek to assess how youth and young adults are faring in the community, examine how existing systems are reaching youth and young adults, analyze how policies, systems, and culture support or impede their progress, and develop and implement action plans for community change.

MDC recognizes that improving outcomes depends on leadership, culture and systems in the community, and they encourage the community stakeholders to consider each of these aspects as they develop the infrastructure of opportunity. That infrastructure of opportunity, as MDC sees it, is numerous community assets and conditions that support young people as they complete foundational education, obtain a postsecondary credential, and enter and advance in the workplace. The supporting conditions – the infrastructure – include those five factors affecting mobility along with transportation, local school quality, the criminal justice system, cultural media and messages, and more.


The role of philanthropy

The Network for Southern Economic Mobility offers funders a new perspective on their role in supporting change. MDC uses the image of a ladder to depict the work in helping children become economically mobile. It’s a visual reminder that to make the entire ladder strong funders may need to look beyond the individual “rungs” to which we provide grants.

First, the solid data provided by MDC can help us better understand the change we are trying to create and the obstacles that may stand in our way.  If we’re interested in promoting financial security, for instance, it helps to see how factors external to an individual program participant might affect his or her chances for success.

However Jil reminded the group that data is important, but we need to put a face on the data: “We can’t expect young people to beat the odds; we need to change the odds.”

Second, knowing that those parties in the employment pipeline are working to align their efforts can encourage funders to similarly align their investments to propel that work.  Greenville’s NSEM team includes Greenville County Schools, Greenville Technical College, and the perspective of employers from health care and manufacturing who can ultimately move a student from the classroom to a livable wage. Those in the “infrastructure” – businesses, schools, policy makers and others – need a real understanding of what poor young people are dealing with. As an example, Jil said, “The biggest thing keeping our high schoolers up at night is how to pay bills, something that should be an adult problem. So, while we know that internships are one of the best tools to move a student toward opportunity, if we offer only unpaid internships, we immediately exclude poor kids from consideration.”

Third, the concept of “SMIRF,” which we’ve discussed at several GPP meetings and that was brought to us by MDC several years ago, is infused in the idea of building an infrastructure of opportunity.  SMIRF stands for the types of assets that philanthropy can invest in creating lasting change:  Social assets, such as relationships and networks, Moral assets, including the ability to take a stand for what is right, Intellectual assets (the abundant data available through the NSEM are a great example), Reputational assets, and finally – and sometimes least importantly – Financial assets.  Knowing that the infrastructure of opportunity is built by paying attention to leadership, culture and systems, funders in Greenville County can anticipate that their investments of money as well as time and voice may be what’s needed to help give every child the opportunity to fulfill the American dream.

Additional resources

Greenville Network for Southern Economic Mobility

Leading on Opportunity

US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty

The Equality of Opportunity Project

* MDC required each participating city to “form a small, imaginative, high-level leadership group that includes individuals who can leverage policy and operational changes in the critical systems that directly affect youth mobility within their community.” Greenville’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility, team includes:

Jerry Blassingame

  • Soteria Community Development Corporation
  • Christen Hairston
    Greenville Health System
  • Whitney Hanna
    Greenville County Schools
  • Julio Hernandez
    Clemson University
  • Hank Hyatt
    Greenville Chamber of Commerce
  • Shaquan Kearse
  • Jil Littlejohn
    Urban League of the Upstate, City Council
  • Crystal Noble
    Department of Juvenile Justice
  • Ansel Sanders
    Public Education Partners, Greenville County
  • Rokiesha Suber
    Faith Community Leadership
  • Wendy Walden
    Greenville Technical College
  • Gage Weekes
    Hollingsworth Funds




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