Friday, December 1, 2023

Point taken: Green with envy

My old pickup, the one that burned up in an unsolved case of suspected arson, didn’t have a radio. And so during long drives, I would keep awake by trying to remember all of North Carolina’s counties. The whole Alamance-to-Yancey shuffle is no small feat.

I’ve always liked the fact that we have exactly 100 counties. So much of government, when you dig deep enough, seems nearly random; South Carolina, for example, has 46 counties. One hundred has the ring of careful consideration. Plus, it makes calculating percentages really easy.

There’s this map that’s been making the rounds among journalists and political types. It shows that residents in only five North Carolina counties have average annual incomes exceeding the state average of $45,000. The people who live in the other ones — i.e., 95% (easy math!) — don’t. The five counties include Forsyth, which is slightly above the average. The other four, Mecklenburg and the Triangle counties of Durham, Orange and Wake, are each at least 10% above the average, in vivid green. Against the rest of the familiar wedge of North Carolina, shown mostly in gray, they peer out like haunting eyes.

This is a map of income inequality. It was pulled together by Ted Abernathy, an economic-development consultant in Raleigh, for a presentation to a legislative committee earlier this year. The data is from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it is a disturbing snapshot. We are a state of haves and have-nots.

Now, it’s not as if we needed a map to learn that fact, but graphics have a way of organizing information into a compelling narrative.

Abernathy says he was surprised the map has received so much attention. It’s been tweeted and shared and blogged about. It’s simply a snapshot, he notes. In addition, he suspects that North Carolina isn’t alone in this sorting and that most other states would have a similar grim income profile. He hadn’t run the numbers, but I did. He’s right. Across the Southeast, our peer states show a similar breakdown (figuratively and literally) in income. States in the Midwest are a bit less skewed.

In and of itself, income inequality isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most would agree that surgeons ought to make more than bank tellers (or magazine columnists). But there is a tipping point, where the inequality is codified and stratified in a manner that prevents the vast majority of people at the bottom from getting ahead.

This is the bend in the river that becomes an oxbow. So perhaps what the map represents is the inequality of opportunity. When prosperity is so clearly defined by geography, there is a problem. One only needs to read the news from Europe and the Middle East to see what happens when people vote with their feet.

We haven’t reached that point. Yet. But it’s worth noting that two of our wealthiest counties are also the two largest in population and are growing larger each year. Wake and Mecklenburg make up about 20% of our state’s population, the suns around which the 98 other planets revolve. Hard to admit, but it’s the truth. 

We will be seeing more of this map during this year’s elections. It fits a political construct that suggests a failure to bring prosperity to the majority of North Carolinians. Why it exists — or, more accurately, what state government can do to reverse it — is more complex and difficult, not the stuff of 30-second attack ads.

That said, the idea that the private sector will just take care of it all is simplistic. Markets can be efficient, yes, but they also leave enormous wreckage in their wake. Despite what the textbooks tell us, markets are not without friction. And in the real world, that friction is borne by actual people.

Abernathy’s presentation also included another, more optimistic map, one of income growth. It reveals a less concentrated pattern, with average incomes increasing in 47 counties, including 19 above the state average.

There you have it. Two ways of sorting data. One view is a fairly bleak snapshot, but it’s a snapshot. The other, which is more contextual and offers hope, shows movement and direction. It reminds me of being trapped underwater and trying to get to the surface. Does it matter if you have moved from 20 feet below to only 10 feet? Yes and no. It all depends on how long you can hold your breath.

Ken Otterbourg is a writer who lives

in Winston-Salem.

Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg
Ken Otterbourg is a writer who lives in Winston-Salem.

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