Can you imagine living 30 minutes from the headquarters of Facebook, Google and Apple, and never having heard of Silicon Valley? Neither could I. That was before I met a group of women from the Mayfair district of East San Jose. Women who told me how they struggle to put food on the table, hold down at least one job, and give their kids somewhere safe to live.
These women might be neighbors to workers at the tech giants, but their lives are worlds apart.
That meeting was one of many I joined over the past two years, where the stark reality of America’s economic divide was brought to life by people barely getting by in urban, suburban, rural and tribal communities across America.
In Dayton, Ohio, last May, I was welcomed by a resilient community working hard to recover from the Great Recession. During a visit to Sinclair Community College, I met with education, civic, health and religious leaders, and our conversations covered everything from opioids to jobs in the modern economy.
What those encounters illuminated was not news, but bears repeating: opportunity in America is bound tightly to a variety of factors including housing, health, race, family and education.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been investing in U.S. education for almost two decades because we believe that education offers a bridge to opportunity like no other. Through this work, we hear from teachers, principals, superintendents and others that how a child performs in the classroom has a lot to do with their life outside it.
Today, we are announcing a $158 million expansion of our work in the U.S. to increase opportunity for more Americans by trying to identify and remove some of the barriers that hold them back.
Relative to some of our other investment areas, we’re starting out small and with a different approach than we typically take. Our work will not be about driving a specific outcome like the eradication of a particular disease. Rather, we will focus on supporting the army of people already working to eliminate barriers to economic opportunity. They have experience and great ideas, and we have identified a few ways we think we can help them be even more effective.
Our investment will be directed to five areas over the next four years.
First, closing data gaps. A lack of good information about many of the fundamental factors contributing to poverty in America means that it is hard to diagnose barriers to opportunity and develop ways to eliminate or limit them.
For example, we have an image of what a good neighborhood is, but we don’t actually know how all of the characteristics of neighborhoods contribute to upward economic mobility. Research we’ve already funded has produced powerful findings that challenge our assumptions. It turns out that even when children grow up in the same areas with parents earning very similar incomes, African-American boys still fare worse in later life than white boys in almost every single neighborhood in the U.S.
Second, helping local leaders and policymakers who are trying hard to respond to the daily realities of poverty get connected to each other, to state-of-the-art knowledge, and to funding by establishing nationwide partnerships and networks.
Third, making it easier for groups tackling the underlying issues of poverty to work together.
One of the ways we hope to achieve this is by investing in a hub where those working on the ground to develop promising strategies and programs can connect with funders so that the best ideas for increasing opportunity can be brought to life.
Fourth, helping workers in low-income jobs get a chance to move up the economic ladder and support their families.
Working class jobs in the industrial economy used to pay a family-supporting wage, but those in the modern-day service economy do not — even though they are critical to our society. Over the next year, we are going to examine promising approaches that can benefit both employees and employers.
Fifth, changing the stories we tell about why people are poor, and what they need to succeed.
Much of the language that is used, and what many people who influence policies and programs believe about poverty, is informed by misconceptions about why people are poor and how they become prosperous.
This limits the progress we can make together. So, we will fund comprehensive research to learn what are the most accurate and actionable messages about poverty and economic mobility, and how to help us all start using more accurate, constructive descriptions.
There are no simple answers to overcoming poverty. The problem can feel so entrenched that some wonder if it is solvable. But from Mayfair to Dayton to the Deep South, we’ve met people who are using their ingenuity and talent to accomplish incredible things against incredible odds. And we are excited to be joining them in this movement.