Boosting Economic Mobility: The Great Challenge of Our Time

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened, and highlighted, the urgent need for solutions. Cities were already on the case.

The Moral Challenge

What this means is that across the country, the dream of working hard to move forward has for many been replaced by a basic struggle for adequate food, housing and transportation. As Bob Herbert once wrote in a New York Times column, “It’s like running on a treadmill that keeps increasing its speed. You have to go faster and faster just to stay in place.” Incomes have stagnated while basic costs have risen. Worse yet, declines in economic opportunity — the ability to access jobs, earn money, and accumulate wealth — have disproportionately impacted people of color. Recent research has found that in 99% of U.S. neighborhoods, white boys who grow up on the same city block and attend the same schools as black boys will likely reach better economic positions in adulthood.

A side lot in Racine, WI, one of the cities in the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative. Photo courtesy of What Works Cities.

A Laboratory for Local Strategies

In our work across the country, we’ve seen how cities can act to accelerate economic mobility. Making decisions based on data — disaggregated by race and other characteristics — can give governments a clearer picture of disparate outcomes among residents in their communities and point to root causes. Funding programs that work can put individuals on a path to a better life. Policies that address systemic failures and discrimination can improve population-level outcomes. Attention and urgency from government officials can bring different levels of government and local organizations to the same table to build a better future for their community. Facilitating learning among local leaders — and, yes, providing a little flexible money — can drive real outcomes.

Our economic mobility framework, with examples of city-level policy areas. Cities in the WWC Economic Mobility Initiative are piloting interventions associated with education, economic stability & workforce, and housing. Image courtesy of Behavioral Insights Team (BIT).

Time for Change

With U.S. inequality at levels not seen since just before the Great Depression, successful local strategies to boost economic mobility are urgently needed. The Economic Mobility Initiative was designed to surface what works and then spread lessons among cohort members and across the country. This work began in Spring 2019, and has become even more urgent in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis.



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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What Works Cities

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