How Did We Get Here? Part 2

by | March 7, 2019

How did Winston-Salem become the hardest city in which to escape child poverty in the United States? A month ago, in our blog post “How Did We Get Here? Pt. 1,” we explained the Harvard study that places Winston-Salem at the bottom of the charts for economic mobility. We also provided a brief history of the city’s economic misfortune, demonstrating the causal relationship between the 20th century collapse of Winston-Salem’s low skill labor market and the 21st century stagnation of its social mobility. You can find that article here.

At the end of Pt. 1, we introduced five factors that are generally correlated with economic immobility in the United States, namely,

  1. High levels of segregation
  2. Substantial income inequality
  3. Quality of public schools
  4. Strength of social networks
  5. Fraction of single parent households¹

These five factors are pulled from a 2014 paper by Chetty et al. entitled, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States.” The findings of that article are condensed in this helpful video, which we recommend you watch:

Dr. Raj Chetty discusses his findings on the geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States

This week, we are going to break each one of those factors down, and demonstrate their presence in Winston-Salem.

I. High Levels of Segregation

Most people who live in Winston-Salem know that the city is highly segregated, particularly down US Highway 52, which was constructed in 1973 and divides the city by race and economic class. Beyond the clear evidence readily accessible by mere observation, there are also studies that verify Winston-Salem’s high levels of segregation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) studies urban areas to identify racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty (R/ECAPs). African American and Latino residents are disproportionately likely to reside in a R/ECAP; African Americans are 7.3 times more likely than whites to live in a R/ECAP and Latinos are 5.5 times more likely to do so. Factors contributing to the presence of R/ECAPs include location of affordable housing, lack of public and private investment, lack of community revitalization, and deteriorated and abandoned properties.²

II. Substantial Income Inequality

Winston-Salem’s income inequality is both substantial and growing. Income inequality is often measured by the Palma Ratio, a metric that divides the wealth of the top 10% of the population by the wealth of the bottom 40%. In the United States as a whole, the top 10% own twice as much wealth as the bottom 40% combined, creating a Palma ratio of “2.”

Winston-Salem’s Palma Ratio currently sits substantially higher than the national average at “2.25.” This may not seem like a significant difference, but it’s important to remember that that means the city’s top 10% own an additional 25% of all of the wealth owned by the city’s bottom 40%, compared with the national average. Not only does this income inequality exist in Winston-Salem, it grew noticeably in the last decade.³

What’s more, Winston-Salem’s income inequality is highly racially segregated, both by hourly wages:
And by quintile:

III. Quality of Public Schools

The point is sometimes made that it is inaccurate to say Winston-Salem’s schools are failing students across the board. This is true. It’s more accurate to say that Winston-Salem’s schools are failing their black and brown students across the board.

This statement is neither an ascription of blame nor a political attack. It is simply a statement of the facts. The Piedmont Renewal Network is honored to work with amazing people in the city’s predominantly black and brown schools, and in the district’s central office. Many of them are doing all they can every day to make a difference, and they aren’t trying to hide the facts. As stated in last week’s blog, “Education – The New Segregation,” “in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, only 36% of African American students and 37% of Hispanic/Latino students are prepared for college upon graduation, compared with 80% of their white counterparts (based on ACT proficiencies).

Moreover, only 34% of economically disadvantaged students in Winston-Salem are prepared for college upon high school graduation, compared with 74% of non economically disadvantaged students (based on ACT proficiencies).

The consequences of such numbers are real, and they reach far beyond the classroom. Low quality jobs are disproportionately occupied by minority workers in the United States, to the point that social scientists often refer to entire categories of employment as ‘segregated job fields.’ These jobs do not provide employment security or adequate pay, tend to keep minority communities low income, and, in turn, lead to underfunded schools. The cycle continues to repeat.”


IV. Strength of Social Networks

Any data outlining the strength of social networks in a given area will necessarily be more qualitative in nature. As such we are not aware of any academically reliable studies discussing this issue in Winston-Salem specifically. If there is any quality local information on this topic that we have missed, please leave us a comment or reach out to us via email/social media.

Authors Note: Hey everyone, I wanted to break the usual format here to discuss this social networks issue a bit more. We try to keep this blog relatively academic, but I think that a strong, circumstantial case can be made for weaker than average social networks in Winston-Salem, at least up until the recent past.

First of all, there is no debate as to whether or not Winston-Salem is racially segregated. With that segregation comes an unavoidable weakening of cross socioeconomic network ties. We do have social networks in Winston-Salem, but they tend to be highly segregated as well. Our schools, churches, professional networks, and even many of our colleges are all quite segregated. Social networks can’t get people out of a hole if there’s nobody up top to hold the rope.

Second, and at the risk of sounding anecdotal, Winston-Salem doesn’t seem to have a unified, cross cultural city identity to lean into. People talk about what side of Highway 52 they grew up on, or where they went to school, or what their politics are. After years of being here, I haven’t heard any common thread of what it means to live in Winston-Salem. If anything, I have come across several consistent subgroups within the city, but they mostly seem to identify themselves as not being from the other subgroups. That seems indicative of weak social networks.

Finally, it has to be noted that community unifying forces are very much alive in Winston-Salem (e.g. Venture Cafe), but these efforts are nascent, and still only getting off the ground in a city where trust and longevity seem to be key.

Again, I’m not generally comfortable speaking in the absence of data, but I believe most careful observers of of this city would agree that social networks are at best highly segregated, and at worst generally feeble.

— Logan Philon

V. Percentage of Single Parent Households

This data is straightforward. In 2018 38% of children in Winston Salem were in single parent homes, compared to the national average of 26%. Single parent households are more susceptible to poverty, food insecurity, adverse health outcomes, and virtually every other negative factor associated with low socioeconomic status.

Winston-Salem is the hardest city in which to escape child poverty (with the exception of three Indian reservations).¹⁰ When confronted with this fact, most people who live in Winston-Salem respond with one of two reactions. Either they refuse to believe it, or they accept it but cannot fathom how their city ended up in that position. When people understand the collapse of Winston-Salem’s low skill labor market, along with the five factors laid out in this week’s blog, they are at least equipped with a framework in which to reflect on these issues. This blog post was designed to be as informative as possible, and we encourage you to share it (along with Part 1) with any friends or associates who may find it beneficial.

¹ Chetty, R., Hendren, N., Kline, P., Saez, E. (2014). Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States. Equality of Opportunity Project.

² “Final AFH for Winston-Salem Forsyth HAWS.Pdf,” accessed March 5, 2019, /pdf/1CBD/Planning/2018/Mar%202018/Final%20AFH%20for%20Winston-Salem%20Forsyth%20HAWS.pdf?ver=2018-03-21-162613-980.

³ “Indicator_Income Distribution,” Forsyth Futures (blog), July 30, 2018, income-distribution/.

⁴ “Preparation for College and Career,” Forsyth Futures, accessed February 28th, 2019.

⁵ Ibid.

⁶ Arne L. Kalleberg. Good Jobs Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s. (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).

⁷ “Forsyth County, North Carolina,” County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, accessed March 5, 2019,

 ⁸ Jennifer Wolf, “Census Data on the Number of Kids Being Raised by One Parent,” Verywell Family, accessed March 5, 2019,

⁹ John Iceland, Poverty in America: A Handbook, (Berkley: University of California Press, 2013).

¹⁰ Chetty, R., Hendren, N., Kline, P., Saez, E. (2014). Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States. Equality of Opportunity Project.