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The Cape Fear economy is defined by unequal opportunity -- but it's not too late to change course

Use your network to think up possible mentors.
Amy Matsushita-Beal for NPR

Cape Fear Collective's explosive equity survey offers a clear look at the opportunities available in the region. And those opportunities are not equally distributed by race or gender.

Millennials have long bemoaned the tough circumstances that have defined their adult lives, from the economic crash of 2008 to political upheavals to a global pandemic. National data show that millennials, on average, are worse off than their parents were at the same age.

And local data follow a similar trend, according to a recent equity report with Cape Fear Collective. The landmark report shows significant economic growth within the region, but which is skewed heavily to certain earners and does not reach many low-wage earners. Among the most startling findings: White workers have seen wages increase over the last 20 years, while wages have declined by an equal margin for Black workers during the same time period.

Here are the key takeaways from CFC’s Inclusive Economy report.

Economic Growth is not fairly distributed in the Cape Fear

The shape of the local economy has moved from a large focus on manufacturing to a focus on services in recent years. But White workers have benefited most from this shift, as the higher-paying jobs in the region go to higher educated workers. Educational attainment is not equal among races: 42% of White adults have a bachelor’s degree or more, while that number is 16% for Black adults and 12% for Hispanic adults. That degree increases earning power by 50% on average- from $13 an hour to $19 to $24 per hour.

Those wages translate directly to poverty rates. New Hanover County’s poverty rate is 15% but, among Black residents, it’s 33%. Cape Fear Collective calls this trend the “Tale of Two Economies”: Rather than having a standard bell curve for wages, with a peak around the median income of $54,891 a year, there’s a bump of population earning $75,000 or more, and a large group earning between $15,000 and $49,000.

Cape Fear Collective CFC income distribution
Cape Fear Collective
An income distribution for the region shows a significant bump of worker earning more than $75,000 a year, with a much larger group making between $25,000 and $50,000 a year.

But the median household income varies significantly based on race. White and Asian households have a median income above $60,000, while Hispanic households are at $41,855 and Black households are at $29,820- Just about $5,000 above the federal poverty level.

CFC Data Analyst Dante Haywood says, “low wages maintain someone at low wages, and poverty maintains people at low wages, because you never ever able to get your, your foot in the door.”

Cape Fear Collective (CFC) income distribution by household race
Cape Fear Collective
While the median household income for the region is $54,000, it's less than $30,000 for Black households and more than $62,000 for White households.

When someone is working two jobs at low wages to make ends meet, they don’t have time to do job training and move into higher-paying, higher-skilled work, the report says. And low wages make it difficult to ever save up for a house or get to a more stable fiscal place.

“There are these huge barriers, when you are low income, to actually gaining wealth,” Haywood says. “If all your income is going to daily expenses, you don't have money to save, so you don't have a down payment. If you don't have money to save, you might not have good credit, or you might have to put things on credit cards.”

Cape Fear Collective has uncovered significant proof that certain neighborhoods in Wilmington are gentrifying.

The pressure to survive, he says, makes it difficult to ever buy a house or make other investments, which means those families are unable to pass along such wealth to their children.

Gender Wage Gap

Across seven out of eight Cape Fear counties under analysis, gender wage gaps were significant. Onslow County is an outlier, with a median wage gap of just $616 between male and female workers. But Brunswick, Pender, and New Hanover Counties have the most significant wage gaps, with Pender sitting at a $8,824 difference between the median male and female workers.

Adding race to the mix makes the differences even more striking: The median Hispanic female in New Hanover County makes $26,561 less than the median white male. And in many counties, the gap is actually getting worse. Brunswick County, for instance, increased the pay gap for all categories between 2014 and 2019. And in New Hanover, only the gap between Whites and Hispanics improved — Black residents and women faced increasing wage gaps.

Cape Fear Collective (CFC) gender and racial wage gap
The gender wage gap is more severe when race is added to the mix, though the racial wage gap is still significant without gender.

And those wages translate to lost opportunities for the children in those families, Haywood says. “We see white families, white children who grew up, they were well above and beyond the amount of progress that black children and many Hispanic children have felt within this community,” he says.

Low wage jobs offer little upward mobility — but there are other opportunities

Business Ownership and Job Opportunities

The Cape Fear Region is expected to grow by 1.3% annually, according to the CFC report, or about 10,000 new residents per year.

The Wilmington metro area’s job market is largely defined by the healthcare industry and foodservice, retail, and accommodations. The latter categories typically do not provide wages that allow workers to live self-sufficiently, CFC found. And according to a study by the Brookings Institution, low-wage industries offer little to no upward mobility.

But there are opportunities in Wilmington: several high-wage, high-growth industries will be bringing new jobs to Wilmington each year- education services, construction, health care, and professional, scientific, and technical services all are expected to grow by hundreds of jobs per year.

But with so many newcomers moving to the area, Haywood suggests it will take a concerted effort to get locals trapped in low-wage jobs to break into growing, high wage industries. “what we can do is make sure that we are aligning our workforce pipeline to our industry here,” Haywood said. “By developing workforce pipelines, maybe boot camps, other internships and things like that, we can give local people the ability to actually get those jobs.”

The local nursing program is a good example of such a pipeline, he added. But CFC also found that the region’s colleges and universities aren’t providing a significant number of degrees in IT, computer science, math, statistics, or engineering, which “leaves those positions to workers trained outside the region.”

Cape Fear Collective (CFC) analysis of job growth opportunities
Low wage jobs are among the most abundant jobs in the region.

Job networks are segregated, which leads to inequality

According to CFC’s report, job seekers and employers alike rely on networks for recruitment — and the employment market in Wilmington can be difficult to penetrate without inside help.

That fact translates directly into discrimination, thanks to the segregated nature of Wilmington’s housing and social networks.

“The way that the population numbers come out, the region is very highly segregated,” Haywood says. “Maybe I can't break into networks that would further my career. I think a lot of that has to do with just quite frankly, a lot of where people live within the community and who they interact with.”

Perhaps that’s why the median household income for Black families is more than $30,000 less than the median household income of a White family.

Business ownership and the impact of Covid-19

The vast majority of business owners in the Wilmington area are white men. 47 out of every 1000 white men in Wilmington are business owners, while the rate for white women is just 14 out of 1000. Black business owners were so few and far between that they didn’t register in the U.S. census business survey, and Hispanics only faired marginally better, at 7 business owners per 1000.

That data is from a 2017 survey, and circumstances have likely worsened thanks to the pandemic. Across the country, 40% of black-owned businesses have permanently shuttered thanks to the pandemic, CFC reports. And nearly half of all businesses in North Carolina reported a negative impact from COVID-19.

Cape Fear Collective's full Inclusive Economy report is available here.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.