Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Economic Mobility Lacking, and Initiatives to Address It; Capable Young People Face Frustration in Finding Better Opportunities

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Economic Mobility Lacking, and Initiatives to Address It; Capable Young People Face Frustration in Finding Better Opportunities

Article excerpt

Byline: Tessa Duvall

Since Gabrielle King graduated from Wolfson High School, she's worked a series of paraprofessional and clerk jobs to support herself.

King, 20, was a bright student with several college scholarship offers, but as a new mom to her now 3-year-old son, Ephriam, she couldn't go to school full time. She felt unfulfilled by her jobs and wanted something more.

"I know I have ... so much more potential that a lot of employers don't really invest in," King said.

An estimated 18,000 young people like King are in Jacksonville: between the ages 18 and 24, under-employed and not pursuing higher education.

Jacksonville is among the worst big cities in the South for young people to improve their economic outlook.

A presentation by the research and advocacy group MDC highlights stark socioeconomic disparities. A child born into the bottom one-fifth of family incomes has a 4.9 percent chance of ever getting to the top one-fifth. However, there's a 35 percent chance they'll stay in the bottom group.

Forbes ranked Jacksonville 52nd in the 100 largest metro areas for best business climate in 2014, while the city's rank for economic mobility was among the worst at 90th. The city had a 13.9 percent poverty rate, an increase of 56 percent since 2000.

It would take a wage of $22.58 an hour to support an adult and one child in Jacksonville. But, the median hourly earning in Jacksonville is $19.39, and only 29 percent of jobs pay above the living wage, according to MDC.

Cities that have residential segregation by income or race, income inequality, lower-quality schools and a high-rate of single-parent homes tend to have less economic mobility, according to the presentation.

"If we don't do something about the opportunity for these under-employed young adults, these 18,000, if we don't bridge the Southside, with the North, the East and the Westside, then we're in trouble," said Robin Tanya Watson, who runs a program for young adults. "I think we are seeing in our community right now, crime is going up."

When it comes to earning potential, education matters, said Michelle Braun, president and CEO of United Way of Northeast Florida, and it doesn't have to be a four-year degree. A person who gets at least a certificate or two-year degree can improve their circumstances by 30 percent, she said.

POTENTIAL FOR LEADERSHIP

The United Way recently hosted David Dodson, president of MDC, to talk to various nonprofit and city leaders about how to build an "infrastructure of opportunity" to help improve economic mobility.

"We're not trying to launch a new thing," said Braun. "We want to bring in people who are already interested."

MDC is also launching its Network for Southern Economic Mobility in which four selected cities - Jacksonville, Chattanooga, Tenn.; Greenville, S.C.; and Athens, Ga., - work together to improve economic mobility for their residents.

Braun said the cities will come together in person in May, but will have monthly conversations. The first step for each city is data analysis so they can decide which issues to address first.

Braun said all four cities have the Achieving the Dream initiative at their community colleges, an engaged chamber of commerce and an involved municipal government. They all have ideas they can share, including Jacksonville's Operation Open Door that removes questions about arrests from job applications.

"There's potential for Jacksonville to be a leader," Braun said.

Phyllis Martin, head of community impact at the United Way, said the work is really at the intersection of programs and systems. She noted that while programs are a critical part of serving people, there also has to be a big-picture focus on the systems that create the problems that make the programs necessary.

FINDING A PROFESSIONAL PASSION

There are a number of initiatives in Jacksonville already targeting economic opportunity. …

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