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WSSU launches economic mobility research center supported by $3 million gift

The new center will help to better understand the factors and causes of low-income social mobility in Forsyth County.

Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) has received a $3 million grant to launch a new center to study the barriers to economic mobility in East Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

The WSSU Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) will serve as a hub for faculty research, undergraduate student research scholarship, and community outreach. The grant comes from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s Center for Advancing Opportunity, an initiative supported by The Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries.

Craig Richardson (left) and Alvin Atkinson

Children from low-income families in Forsyth County are less likely to move up the income ladder as adults compared to kids almost anywhere else in the United States, according to a study by economist Raj Chetty. Only two counties in South Dakota are worse. Even residents in neighboring counties Yadkin, Stokes and Surry have better economic mobility outcomes.

“It is crucial to understand just what is holding broad-based development and upward mobility back and how that might be changed at the local level,” said WSSU Economics Professor Craig Richardson, who will serve as CSEM’s founding director. “The goal is basically to better understand how to remove barriers to economic and social development across the board.”

Although Forsyth County is home to several respected colleges and universities, world-class hospitals, and a strong tax base, Winston-Salem is strongly divided by race and income level, Richardson said. Richardson, an economics professor for the past 25 years, has published in a wide variety of areas ranging from health insurance and economic development to property rights. His research on the economic collapse of Zimbabwe was published in a book in 2004. From 2011-2012, he was director of the WSSU Center for Economic Analysis, and he recently served as chair of the Department of Economics and Finance.

“Research is needed to better understand the factors and causes of low-income social mobility in Forsyth County,” he said. “The center will pull from the talents of WSSU faculty as well as some of the top scholars from around the world and finance original research to identify needs in Winston-Salem.”

WSSU also has named Alvin Atkinson, previously director of the Center for Community Safety at WSSU, as associate director.

The center aligns closely with WSSU’s five-year strategic plan, said Chancellor Elwood L. Robinson. 

“WSSU, with our strong academic focus on social and economic justice and healthcare disparities, and its deep connections to the communities around East Winston, is well positioned to take a leadership role in investigating and understanding how to spur economic and social development,” Robinson said.  “Improving economic mobility is a win-win. The benefits of the research center are enormous. Our vision for the center is to create and disseminate research to inform change that will reverse decades of economic immobility, helping to make the American dream more accessible to all citizens. If we’re successful, Winston-Salem could become a blueprint for communities around the country.”

As a historically Black university with a long history in the community, WSSU has long been an opportunity gateway for residents in the area, Robinson said. WSSU ranks among the top universities in the nation for improving the social mobility of its graduates.

“Central to our mission is empowering communities to directly participate in identifying and studying the challenges most significant to them and finding research-based answers to these challenges,” said Jennifer Wider, CAO executive director. “We are thrilled to support WSSU and their scholars’ endeavors in this research. And we are eager to begin working with the community to find solutions to the problems that create barriers to opportunity for too many people in this community and others like it all over America.”

CSEM will be based in R.J. Reynolds Center on WSSU’s campus and will be operationally part of the College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education.

A bold past. A brilliant future.

For 125 years, Winston-Salem State University has fostered the creative thinking, analytical problem-solving, and depth of character needed to transform the world. Rooted in liberal education, WSSU’s curriculum prepares students to be thought leaders who have the skills and knowledge needed to develop innovative solutions to complex problems. WSSU is a historically Black constituent institution of the University of North Carolina with a rich tradition of contributing to the social, cultural, intellectual, and economic growth of North Carolina, the region and beyond. Guided by the motto, “Enter to Learn. Depart to Serve,” WSSU develops leaders who advance social justice by serving the world with compassion and commitment. Join us in celebrating our 125th anniversary with events throughout 2017. Learn more by visiting WSSU's 125th Anniversary website.

About the Center for Advancing Opportunity

The Center for Advancing Opportunity expands educational, social, and economic opportunities in our nation’s most fragile communities through original research, educational programs, and direct engagement with residents. By listening to different community voices and supporting scholars and students passionate about making a positive difference, we work to empower people eager to put ideas into action and discover mutually beneficial solutions to bolster fragile communities across the country. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Center for Advancing Opportunity is a research and education initiative born out of a partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Charles Koch Foundation, and Koch Industries. The Center supports students and faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as well as other majority colleges and universities to develop research-based solutions to the most pressing issues in fragile communities.

For more information about the Center for Advancing Opportunity, visit

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