For educated middle- and upper-class African-American professionals, Charlotte is a boomtown. Business leaders have redoubled their efforts in recent years to attract and retain them. There are social and professional networks to plug into, churches that cater to them, and leadership opportunities galore.
But for those with less education and means, the picture is very different. The blue collar labor market in Charlotte is tight and getting tighter, and after struggling to find jobs or having to hold down two or three to make ends meet, lower-income African-American workers who recently moved here are showing up in increasing numbers at Charlotte's social service agencies.
Sheila Funderburke, vice president of workforce development at the Urban League of Central Carolinas, sees the heartbreaking side of the new migration every day.
"Many of them come — I'm talking about the people who are not too far from poverty or locked into poverty — without any plan of action in terms of employment or even in getting their basic needs met," said Funderburke. "Because of the publicity that Charlotte is getting about the jobs here, people are coming thinking that it's easy just to walk into a job, but when they get here, they find that it's not easy, that it takes time. Many are on the verge of being homeless from the move down here, or they have to get on some type of public support just to maintain their basic needs and it's very sad to see that happening to people who have this dream of employment opportunities that Charlotte has to offer."
That hasn't always been the case. Urban League Housing Counselor Robin Brown says when she moved here from Pittsburgh in 1994, there were plenty of jobs in the Charlotte area and you really could "just step into one."
But as the new migration grew in size and Hispanics and other ethnic groups began to move here in large numbers as well, competition for the kinds of low-skilled jobs with which you could barely make ends meet grew fierce.
As recently as a decade ago, people could make a living working in manufacturing, processing and textile jobs that paid about $15 an hour. But those jobs are disappearing in Charlotte and across the country.
"The problem now is that there's job growth for people who are basically doing grunt work and job growth for people who have transferable skills that take years to develop, but the middle-range jobs are disappearing," said Charles Gallagher, a professor with the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State. "If someone arrives that's 45 and African-American and just finished high school and doesn't really have transferable skills, what kind of work is this person going to do?"
Gallagher thinks the trends here will mimic the longterm trends in Atlanta. "Atlanta was a huge engine for job growth," said Gallagher. "The northern arc of the city experienced an explosion as did finance, insurance and real estate downtown, but there were no net jobs created in poor black neighborhoods. If it's like it was in Atlanta, you're going to have a large population of blue-collar black workers coming in and they'll need the kind of jobs that might not necessarily be there anymore."
The results of the problem are beginning to register in county social services statistics.
In the past, say Mecklenburg County social services officials, food stamp cases usually begin to decline within two years of the end of a recession. Now, the opposite is happening. Despite the economic recovery, the number of food stamp cases they're handling has spiked to record levels in recent months.
The trend is hurting both recent Hispanic and African-American immigrants as well as native Charlotteans with low education levels who are now increasingly finding it difficult to find a job that pays enough to allow them to survive.
Funderburke and Brown say they began noticing the job market was tightening up around 1998, when it really became harder for the people the Urban League serves to step into a job. It has gotten worse since then, they say.
"It's not that the jobs aren't out there," said Brown. "It's that so many people are here. Employers can be very selective about their hiring process. They don't have to advertise the jobs like they used to when I first came down here when there were plenty of jobs."
This is the dark side of the new migration. There is no way to tell exactly how many of the 103,000 African-Americans who have made Charlotte their home since 1990 are impoverished or fleeing poverty. But since the new migration is fairly representative of the African-American community as a whole, in raw numbers there are going to be more low-income movers because there are more low-income people, said Brookings Institute Scholar William Frey.
"Like in Atlanta, it's a broad-based migration," Frey said. "It's not just any particular niche that moves. It's young, old, rich, poor, high-education, low-education."
Nanelle Stanley, 36, patiently waited her turn in the Crisis Assistance Ministry lobby on Spratt Street last week after the utility company turned her lights off again. She relocated to Charlotte from New York two years ago after a friend urged her to move here. She thought she'd have an easy time getting a job as a nurse's assistant until she learned she'd have to take a $1,000 course to be recertified here. Stanley figured she'd just find something else until she saved enough money to pay for the class. Instead, it took her months to find a job. She worked in grocery stores, gas stations and other customer service jobs, but has had a hard time making ends meet. The cost of living is less here, she says, and there is less crime and pollution, but these aren't the kinds of jobs for which you pack up your kids and move.
Patrick Graham, director of the Crisis Assistance Ministry's emergency financial assistance program, sees the telltale signs of the new migration in his organization's lobby every day.
"I think it's occurring the same way as the original migration happened from the 1920s all the way to 1970," said Graham, who holds a doctoral degree in history. "There are a lot of people coming because they have family that has migrated here already. Part of what we are seeing isn't just about the opportunities that are here in the New South, but it's also about the disillusionment with the North as the promised land," said Graham. "They see that African-Americans in the South own more than a lot of African-Americans in the North. They see more African-American businesses in the South than they do in the North. Unfortunately, that doesn't always translate for those who are lower class."
Graham says Charlotte's social services network, both the public and non-profit arms, is among the best in the nation, and that, too, could be helping drive the migration here.
"It gets out, too, that we have good human services here and so sometimes people think, 'Well I can just get the assistance and get started,'" he said.
That has forced Crisis Assistance Ministry to make some tough decisions. Graham said he had to tighten the rules when he took over the ministry's financial assistance program a few years ago to keep the organization from becoming "a moving company."
"You have to be an emergency move for us to help you with moving," said Graham. "It has to be that you are forced out. A lot of people who come here aren't forced out. They just opted to move."
All of this illustrates just how far people are willing to go to move to the South and to Charlotte. The tug of the new migration is a powerful one.
"I think that it will continue to grow," said Graham.