Winston-Salem State University is starting a new academic center with support from a $3-million grant from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.

The Center for the Study of Economic Mobility will examine why it is so difficult for some people in Forsyth County to lift themselves out of poverty. The center's director, economist Craig Richardson, says the idea for the center began with data from an article in the New York Times.

“It looked at the entire country, county by county, and it looked at what was the probability of moving up the economic ladder if you're born poor," says Richardson. "And I was pretty stunned to see that our county is third from the very bottom in the entire country in terms of economic mobility.”

Richardson says there are pockets of Forsyth County where the poverty rate is 60 percent. And while there are cities that are worse off economically than Winston-Salem, most of them seem to be doing a better job of lifting people out of it.

“Our poverty rate is getting worse, we don't quite know why, we're having people that are struggling to get up the ladder - now's the time more than ever for us to uncrack this puzzle.”

One of the barriers, Richardson says, is that some people are limited to what he calls “bus-stop jobs.” If they don't have their own transportation, they might have to find jobs that are close to public transportation stops. And that can narrow the possibilities for finding work.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund is supporting the center with donations from the Koch Foundation. Winston-Salem State isn't the first university to get money from the billionaire Koch brothers, who many say use their financial clout to support causes aligned with their libertarian political leanings. Western Carolina University, for example, received money two years ago from the Charles Koch Foundation in support of a free enterprise center. The move did, however, lead to a faculty backlash. Even the original donation to the Thurgood Marshall fund sparked some controversy.

Also, centers at UNC campuses have been under scrutiny. Recently the UNC board barred the University of North Carolina's Center for Civil Rights from representing minority and low-income clients.

Despite that, Richardson says the center will be able to operate independently.

“It's hard to be against economic mobility,” he says. “We've been very, very careful to keep an open research question...This center is going to be an independent center.”

He says that means independence from donors as well as the State of North Carolina.

“That also removes us from the politics from both Democrats and Republicans and anyone else telling us what we should be doing. And I think that's the best place we should be as an academic center.”

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