50 out of 50: Social Mobility in Charlotte

To some, Charlotte is a city that metaphorically pulled itself up by its bootstraps. Despite the economic and social upheaval brought on by the Civil War, Charlotte continued as a leading city for finance and the textile industry throughout the 20th century. After the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation in the 1970s, Charlotte grew exponentially in both population and diversity: from 1980 to 2014, the population more than doubled, and the percentage of people of color in Mecklenburg County rose from 24 to 52 percent, according to the Quality of Life Explorer created by Mecklenburg County, the city of Charlotte, and UNC Charlotte. Based on this narrative of growth and progress, Charlotte shows all the signs of a New South city. Yet, a 2014 study from Harvard and UC Berkeley ranked Charlotte 50th out of 50 cities for social mobility, and this lack of social mobility disproportionately affects minorities. This contradicted Charlotte’s New South city narrative.

The infamous study is titled “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States”. The study measured the likelihood that a child born in a low social stratum will climb to a higher position by early adulthood— their social mobility. The study found that a child born in the bottom income quintile in Charlotte has only a 4.4 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. This 4.4 percent chance placed Charlotte 50th out of 50 large cities for social mobility. The results are especially striking when compared to San Jose, where a child born in the bottom quintile has a 12.9 percent chance of reaching the top— three times greater than Charlotte.

The study identified five major factors that impact social mobility, the first of which is segregation. Areas that are highly segregated by race or income have lower levels of social mobility. Incidentally, segregation by race and segregation by income tend to go hand in hand. High-income neighborhoods have a majority white population, while low-income neighborhoods are mostly comprised of people of color.

Segregation maps from Leading on Opportunity

These maps from the Leading on Opportunity report illustrate how communities segregated by race in Mecklenburg County are also segregated economically from high-income, high-opportunity populations. These high-opportunity populations are often the main characters in the New South city narrative, the people who were able to “make it”. Truth is, only a select few Charlotteans have the chance to make it at all.

Upon first glance, Charlotte is a southern city that pulled itself up by its bootstraps after the Civil War to succeed in terms of population, opportunity, and diversity. However, this story only covers a fraction of the truth. As stated in the Leading on Opportunity report, “The ethos of bootstrapping, or scaling the socioeconomic ladder through individual effort, hard work, and personal responsibility is, by and large, an idealized narrative.” Though Charlotte is a city of opportunity for some, this largely depends on external factors, such as zip code, race, and income.


  • Bradley, Tobin. “Charlotte/Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer.” Charlotte/Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer, Mecklenburg County, 2016, mcmap.org/qol/#15/.
  • Chetty, Raj, et al. Where Is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014, Where Is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States.
  • Charlotte in Detail. Charlotte Chamber, 2015, pp. 4–4, Charlotte in Detail.
  • Garmon-Brown, Ophelia, et al. Opportunity Task Force Report. Leading on Opportunity, 2017, Opportunity Task Force Report, www.leadingonopportunity.org/report/introduction.
  • “History Timeline.” Charlotte Mecklenburg Story, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, 2019, www.cmstory.org/history-timeline.