SPOTLIGHT: The Center for the Study of Economic Mobility at Winston-Salem State University

Craig Richardson headshot and the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility at Winston-Salem State University logo

Craig Richardson, who holds a doctorate in labor economics, is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) and a distinguished professor of economics. In the interview below, he highlights the work CSEM is doing to improve social mobility in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The mission of CSEM is to better understand the causes of low economic mobility. What is the Center’s unique research approach?

The Center focuses on Forsyth County in North Carolina and how to break the barriers to opportunity there. Winston-Salem is bisected by Route 52 and the east side gets less transportation investment. Combined with the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector downtown, it has left a section of the city behind. Our work is all about social mobility in the county and those who have been left behind.

“We take a multidisciplinary approach, combining fields like psychology, economics, and geography.”

That’s what’s exciting — getting out of the silos. We all have blind spots within our disciplines, so we continuously engage so we’re designing what people want. I, an economist, might talk to my psychology colleagues who then tell me I’m assuming rationality under certain conditions. Then comes the question — what does it mean to be rational under conditions of poverty or stress? We ask questions from different viewpoints and the outcomes of our work are on policy levers at the local level. We aim to create “wins” for all three stakeholders — the government, businesses, and individuals. We don’t want them to treat policy interventions as a charity case, but rather as an investment.

CSEM highlights many transportation issues. What are some specific initiatives the center is working on?

We do highlight a lot of transportation issues. Recently, we produced a documentary called Bus Stop Jobs that documents a day in the life of a bus rider in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We followed a woman from 6 a.m. until the evening in this 11-minute film. We highlight the challenges of balancing work, raising a child, getting him to school, and balancing home-life, given the long commutes that bus riders encounter. Because of this documentary, the Winston-Salem Foundation awarded eight transportation grants — it really opened people’s eyes to the issue of getting people across town.

In your research, what have you found that makes it difficult for people to climb the social ladder?

The center partnered with Winston-Salem State on research about benefits and found that social benefits are wiped away when people start to earn more money. This ends up creating poverty traps and makes it difficult for people to climb the social mobility ladder — it’s what we call the disincentive desert.  After people earn more, their take-home pay lessens, so they are disincentivized to progress in their work. We can address the poverty trap by working with employers to determine ways to improve economic mobility aside from wage increases.

In my article, Benefits Cliffs, Disincentive Deserts and Economic Mobility, I offer ideas employers can implement for workers who are receiving social benefits and are only incentivized to work a set number of hours. We really believe that the ascension that someone gets when moving up that ladder is more important than the level of income. Rather than focusing on the jump in income, people have to learn to earn their way up. The problem in Winston-Salem is that the bottom rungs of the ladder are sawed off. People can be ambitious, but they can’t ascend.

This interview originally appeared in our 2020 State of Opportunity in America report.