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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, April 11, 2006. Interview U-0186. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Assessing lingering economic crises in Mecklenburg County

Fillette offers his assessment on the gap between the poor and the wealthy in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. After arguing that some of the most deplorable situations of low-income people had been ameliorated since the early 1970s, he argues that a marked disparity still existed, emphasizing perpetually low wages as evidence. Fillette also discusses the role of race in continuing economic crises and argues that disparity within the public school system was symptomatic of larger divisions within the community.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, April 11, 2006. Interview U-0186. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SARAH THUESEN:
Just by way of summing up then, how would just describe the progress Charlotte has made in the time you've worked here and lived here, in terms of closing the gap between rich and poor?
TED FILLETTE:
Well, I think that the severity of the conditions poor people lived in from the early 1970s and before, I think has certainly been ameliorated. I think that the quality of the housing now is so much better as a result of state law changes and also some amendments to the housing code, including the requirement that there actually be heating equipment in the houses. I think that the city inspection process has worked well. I think the landlord community has largely accepted the new responsibilities. What has not happened is there is any real improvement in the economic buying power of the lower-income community. The minimum wage has remained so low and the welfare payment level is so low and the disability compensations are so low, that the people at the lowest strata of the community can barely afford to live here. If they can get more income from any sources, they can do much better. I mean, I think there is a whole lot available in terms of amenities in housing and good places to live and work. This is not unique to Charlotte. It's true all over the state and all over the country. I think the economic trends show that. There's not much you can do tinkering with a local government and a local economy that will address that. That's sort of the new reality.
SARAH THUESEN:
If it can't be done on the local level, what do you think ultimately is going address this wage and income gap you're describing?
TED FILLETTE:
I can't quite get a vision of that. I think it's going to be a crisis that will have to get to a certain proportion where people that have a political interest in fixing it will speak on behalf of the lowest-income strata. That is, enough employers will start to say, "We've got to have more affordable housing because we can't have workers close enough to our places to operate what we have, what we need to fill with workers, and the workers are going to have enough skills to do what we do. So we're going to have to have enough educational training and enough competence from the school system to work. We're going to have to have enough income in the families so that the kids who come to school aren't coming ill-clothed and hungry." It's really the entire package of what it takes for people to survive and be successful at a decent level. They're all sort of inextricable from one another. People that make minimum wage now cannot afford decent homes, rental or ownership, without some other supplement. It just doesn't work. The North Carolina Justice Center has published some great studies that demonstrate how minimum wage will not buy half of what it takes to live and own a car and rent a home and feed and clothe people; it will not do that. I think as that phenomenon grows, it's going to create crises in other institutions that I think will force some change.
SARAH THUESEN:
What role do you see race playing in the crises that you're describing here?
TED FILLETTE:
Well, I think that in the short run, it's the general perception that all poor people are people of color and that is somewhat of a hindrance, I think, to conservative-dominated legislatures at the state and federal level to want to address them. It's very unclear what impact this national crisis over immigrants and particularly Latinos will have on this. My thought is that how that is resolved will also impact the whole issue of minimum wages, health care provision, and funding of schools in a way that we've never seen before. It's extremely important that Mecklenburg County is now a predominately non-white school system. I'd say that it's very much up for grabs as to whether or not the upper-middle-class leadership in this community is going to continue to support and provide resources for the school system or abandon the school system, like what has happened in most of the metropolitan communities in this country. I look at what happened in Mobile, where the middle-class leadership has abandoned the public school systems and you've got three school systems. You've got the private school system, the parochial school system, and the public school system, which is predominately black and poorly funded. If Charlotte-Mecklenburg goes to that level where they can't pass bonds for school expansion and they can't pay enough salaries to get good enough teachers to maintain order and decent scores for their students, I think it will deteriorate into essentially a second-class system that will not be redeemed.
SARAH THUESEN:
So in other words, we can sort of look to the schools to see where the rest of the city's health is?
TED FILLETTE:
I think that's it a great barometer. Right now, the Chamber of Commerce in Charlotte is saying, "We need to go ahead and support the schools and maintain them, because companies, leaders that are considering Charlotte, want to know about whether the public school system is positive or not." As long as they still ask that and the Chamber of Commerce wants to attract more business to the community, then they see that as something that has to be addressed. But if it ever gets to the point where the whispering campaign says, "You can forget the public schools. Everybody of substance is going to go to private schools and it doesn't matter," then we will have completely institutionalized class strata in every way. I think because of what Judge McMillan did with the school system and the Supreme Court upholding it, we had a truly integrated school system where the upper-middle-class and the lower-class people had a common stake to make a school system work. That was probably the overarching point of contact for people of different races and classes here for thirty years. If that source of contact and common interest is lost, I think we will have an almost irreversible disconnect between the poor and the wealthy in this community.