The What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative brings together city leaders and community partners from nine American cities. Each city and its partners are working closely with the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) to develop testable project pilots and find scalable solutions to increase economic opportunity.

Advancing Economic Mobility in Cities

Three Fundamental Truths for Communities Working to Create Opportunity

What Works Cities
Oct 16, 2019 · 7 min read

By Maia Jachimowicz and Zachary Markovits

Finding ways to increase economic mobility among our most vulnerable residents is an increasingly favored topic in policy and government circles. It is critical work to pursue because if successful, the output of this work has real-life implications for real people: people like Leticia, a mother who works two cleaning and domestic care jobs with two young children at home, trying to stretch every penny; Sean, a young man without a high school diploma who sees new companies moving into his neighborhood and wonders how he and his neighbors can access the jobs that those companies bring with them; Brittany, a high school student who dreams of a career in the growing tech sector in her city but whose family doesn’t have access to the networks that might provide her with opportunities to get her foot in the door.

On October 2–3, 2019, local, state, and federal leaders came together in Washington, D.C. for the Results for America Summit. The theme for this year’s Summit was using data and evidence to advance economic mobility for residents, giving leaders a chance to discuss and workshop strategies to increase economic opportunity for residents across the country.

The Summit opened with a powerful conversation between Bloomberg Philanthropies’ James Anderson and three mayors from What Works Cities’ inaugural Economic Mobility cohort who are on the front lines of using data to improve outcomes for residents: Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren.

From left to right, James Anderson, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, Mayor Lovely Warren, and Mayor G.T. Bynum.

Later in the day, Harvard economist and Director of Opportunity Insights, Raj Chetty, shared national and local generational data, demonstrating that in many communities, young people and families face significant barriers to climbing the economic ladder based on the neighborhoods in which they live. His talk illuminated the relationship between where a child grows up, their race, and their financial prospects.

Watch Chetty’s presentation on the state of economic mobility in America at the Results for America Summit.

While much attention is paid to the important role that federal and state government policymakers have to play in reversing the decline in economic mobility, through our work we know that local governments are equally vital in countering the alarming reality that Chetty and his colleagues’ data presents. In our work, we’ve both seen the tangible power of data-driven local governments and know that they are uniquely positioned to improve outcomes and opportunities for residents by taking the lead to innovate, test, and discover what works.

Johannes Lohmann and Kelsey Gohn from BIT kick off the day’s first problem-solving session.

At the Economic Mobility convening following the Summit, nine cities participating in the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative came together to advance the work that each city has begun since their projects kicked off last spring. Through discussion-driven presentations and collaborative workshops, city leaders and their community partners had the space — and a platform — to share early insights and lessons learned from their projects, each of which are designed to lift residents who are living in or on the brink of poverty. More importantly, the convening allowed the participants, all of whom are on the front lines of doing this work, to build valuable connections and work alongside expert partners to share common challenges and develop ideas and solutions to bring back to their communities.

Here are our three main takeaways from the convening.

1: Addressing economic mobility requires the engagement and collaboration of the whole community.

Tackling the national downward trend of economic mobility is an issue that requires everyone — from elected officials to community partners to the residents themselves — to play an active role in order to make meaningful progress. Everyone needs to be involved and invited to participate in finding the right set of fixes that benefit their community.

For example, the project team in Dayton made clear that they cannot expect to find great solutions to close the racial attendance and achievement gaps in preschool without talking with and generating strategies that respond to the needs of parents, teachers and school administrators. Similarly, in Rochester, only after speaking with residents living in poverty and learning how they manage through financial shocks is the local team able to develop viable strategies to increase resident savings and decrease financial stress. And, the team found their work being further enhanced after speaking with financial counselors and staff at local credit unions.

At the end of the day, moving the needle on creating real opportunities for people who historically have not had equal opportunity must begin with authentically engaging local policymakers, community partners, and residents as experts in their own lives. Engaging federal and state policymakers and other advocates is required, but not sufficient, to creating lasting and meaningful impact; the work and the solutions must be grounded in the lived experiences and expertise of the local community.

2: Cities can be each other’s best resources when it comes to tackling economic mobility.

City leaders, community partners, and What Works Cities expert partners collaborating during the convening.

Regardless of the specific project that each city is undertaking, the macro challenges that cities are encountering are often similar in nature, with solutions that are often transferable across different circumstances. Cities can lean on one another to find solutions and adapt them to their communities.

Case in point: in Lansing, as the local team works to increase the financial health and college-going rates of residents, they are wrestling with what additional strategies they can use to recruit new families to participate in the programming. Their peers in New Orleans and Racine shared that in working through similar challenges, they learned that program graduates are often the best ambassadors and recruiters for new participants. The Lansing team is subsequently bringing that lesson home to try in their community.

Whether it’s finding ways to support low-income workforce development, reducing eviction rates, or providing career education and job training for older youth, other cities are grappling with similar kinds of issues. That is why spaces where cities, who have the shared experience of doing the everyday hard work on the ground, can come together to provide critical feedback to each other in a supportive environment is crucial to testing and improving programs that can positively impact residents’ lives.

3: Using evidence and data gets the right people into the room and solving for the right problem.

Evidence on what works and data on the baseline characteristics and trends are among the best tools we have to make sure that we are creating programs and policies that benefit whole communities, especially those communities that are vulnerable and whose interests may not be vocally represented when decisions get made.

Unfortunately, it’s a hard truth that we can’t talk about under-served communities without talking about the intersection of race and class, more so when the conversation is about an issue as complex as economic mobility. Collecting and leveraging data allows us to identify specific areas of inequity and more deeply understand how various economic issues are experienced by communities of color, communities that live in neighborhoods of disinvestment, or low-income communities — and begin to understand what solutions might be the right ones.

Data and evidence for what works can help identify which groups need to be included and whose voices must have a part in shaping the solution, whether it is a policy, a program, or both. And, for solutions to be useful, the data that cities are collecting and sharing must be connected to their internal goals and to the needs of their residents. This is especially true for issues like economic mobility, where there is no single miracle solution but, rather, a broad mix of solutions that take into account different people’s contexts and address the various root causes that are preventing people from climbing the economic ladder.

Maia Jachimowicz is Vice President for Evidence-Based Policy Implementation at Results for America

Zachary Markovits is Director of City Progress at What Works Cities, Results for America

The What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative is made possible by the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ballmer Group. Learn more about Cincinnati, OH; Dayton, OH; Detroit, MI; Lansing, MI; New Orleans, LA; Newark, NJ; Racine, WI; Rochester, NY; and Tulsa, OK and their projects, here.

What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative

Launched in April 2019, the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative supports cities as they develop, pilot, and measure the success of programs that are designed to accelerate economic mobility for residents.

What Works Cities

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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative

Launched in April 2019, the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative supports cities as they develop, pilot, and measure the success of programs that are designed to accelerate economic mobility for residents.

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