Sustaining Progress on Economic Mobility During COVID-19
Lessons learned from the recent WWC Economic Mobility initiative virtual convening
By Sophie Bergmann
Advancing economic mobility for residents continues to be one of the top concerns for local governments and community-based organizations around the country. Leaders in the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility initiative have been collectively grappling with these challenges as a cohort for over a year and are continuing to work to make meaningful progress at a time when the need is more urgent than ever before.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold alongside a national mobilization supporting justice for Black communities affected by police violence, Results for America, WWC’s lead partner, virtually convened the WWC Economic Mobility initiative cohort over the course of two afternoons on June 17–18, 2020.
More than 50 local government leaders and community partners from the nine participating cities problem solved with their peers; heard from experts in racial equity, workforce, housing, financial security, and child care; and learned about the progress each other had made on the projects they have been advancing since we last convened in October 2019.
Read on for four key takeaways from the virtual convening.
1: Despite COVID-19 challenges, cities can and are making progress in helping their residents — even with the need for expedited decision making and learning.
Local governments and their community partners were well aware that many residents have been struggling to stay afloat before the COVID-19 pandemic, compelling these nine cities to join the WWC Economic Mobility initiative in June 2019. In recent months, the sudden and severe shock to the economy and, in many places, public health, has severely challenged cities and community-based organizations, compounding the already immense need for a wide range of services.
During the convening, local government leaders and community partners shared how they have been adjusting their work in response to the pandemic, and provided examples of how they are continuing to make progress on advancing economic mobility outcomes.
For example, in Racine, prior to the pandemic, the City was focused on peer recruitment to grow a local High School Equivalency Diploma program and increase the number of residents with this credential so that they could compete for better paying jobs. Positive press and the impact of COVID-19 led to a massive uptick in the number of interest forms submitted. But to ensure success the project team pivoted, adjusting their peer recruitment model by adding a “buddy system” to ensure those that submitted interest forms complete the application process. They are also planning for new ways in which remote or blended learning could be incorporated into the program.
Detroit has been working to connect residents living in affordable housing with financial counseling through the city’s Financial Empowerment Center (FEC). Because of the economic pressures COVID-19 has forced upon Detroit residents, the team had to quickly adapt their pilot. By adjusting counseling sessions to virtual appointments, and shifting a savings match program to allow residents to deal with more immediate financial emergencies now, the FEC has seen a sizable increase in the attendance rate, compared to their previously required in-person visit for the first appointment.
With so many competing demands on their time, some might expect local government and community leaders to turn their attention away from economic mobility-related projects that were designed for a growing economy. Instead, the participants in the WWC Economic Mobility initiative are doubling down on their work. Making necessary adjustments in light of the changes that COVID-19 demands, despite some necessary pauses, they are dedicating the time necessary to continue to make progress.
2: Investing in fundamental data skills and evidence-building is always hard. The payoff, however — particularly during times of crisis — can be extraordinary, and well worth the ongoing investment.
The power of data to help governments make life-changing decisions for their residents is on full display right now. Being able to use that power effectively requires investment in the data skills and capacity of staff. Over the past year, the cities in the WWC Economic Mobility initiative have been working on improving these skills in order to advance economic mobility outcomes, which has in turn better prepared them to respond to COVID-19 and the myriad additional challenges brought on by the pandemic. As shared during the convening, some examples of investing in data capacity to drive better decisions and more nimble action within the cities in our cohort include:
- The City of Newark was able to quickly create and launch a data dashboard that is disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and also mapped geographically, to help build an understanding of who is being impacted by COVID-19.
- The City of Rochester’s meal tracker dashboard helps community groups and residents better and more strategically address hunger in a time of great need by sharing information about meals served by the City of Rochester, local community-based agencies, and Rochester City School District.
- In Cincinnati, the Office of Performance and Data Analytics team has been dedicated full-time to focus on the City’s COVID-19 response so that the government’s operational decisions would be driven by data. In addition, the City’s public data on officer involved shootings, first launched in 2016, has enabled open access to data that allow residents to be informed of incidents and help advance more meaningful action.
While releasing quality data of this nature can be daunting, doing so enables transparency in decision-making and provides vital information needed to address and solve problems that directly affect residents’ lives.
3: Learning from experts and peers about efforts to advance economic mobility helps spur new ideas and accelerate change.
One of the three core pillars of the WWC Economic Mobility initiative is centered around sharing lessons and insights across a cohort of expert local government leaders committed to addressing economic mobility challenges. Particularly in a moment when cities are having to make decisions so quickly and remain agile given the ever-changing environment, a network of peers to lean on who are at the forefront of this work is more important now than ever before.
During the convening, city governments and their community partners shared how they are working to be responsive to the needs of their residents, but are encountering challenges that range from making decisions with the best available data and evidence to how to engage specific populations on virtual platforms. In response, they are turning to each other to learn how their counterparts have approached the very same issues in an effort to spur new ideas and accelerate change.
Some key learnings from breakout discussions with peers revealed successful strategies that city project teams are using to work through these challenges, such as:
- relying on data and evidence to strategically allocate priority resources and informing operations,
- relying on trusted community partners to help maintain progress on the work and long-term focus on achieving community goals,
- thinking creatively about how to incentivize participation in programming through small peer groups, given the need to adapt to social distancing requirements, and
- learning from the people you seek to serve and ensuring that any solutions are informed by their feedback and experiences.
Decisions that used to take weeks and months are now being made in just a matter of days, and these teams are working hard to ensure that they are moving forward with the best possible information available.
4: Last, and perhaps most importantly — If local government and community partners want to advance economic mobility, they must center their work around racial equity for Black, Indigenous, Latinx and all people of color.
During one of the convening’s main sessions, Leon Andrews Jr., Director of the National League of Cities’ Race, Equity, and Leadership (REAL) Initiative (and a partner to the WWC Economic Mobility initiative), centered the cohort’s conversations by reinforcing that economic mobility cannot be properly addressed without first acknowledging the prominent role of race and racial equity. He reminded the group that we must lead with race because the data are clear — “from infant mortality to life expectancy, race is still the strongest predictor of one’s success in this country.” Andrews also emphasized that we cannot begin to earnestly discuss economic mobility without also authentically grappling with and understanding how race impacts every facet of our institutions and life outcomes.
During a follow-up discussion, a participant asked about model policies designed to dismantle racist structures that systematically disadvantage Black residents. Andrews noted, “no city is a model here” — a sobering reality for the many leaders who are dedicated to doing more.
Cities were encouraged to continue the hard work of thinking about how to operationalize the idea of racial equity in the work they do every day — something that requires centering the experiences of community members that the work is intending to serve and prioritizing desired results at both the population and the organizational levels.
Ultimately, local government leaders and their community partners are continuing to stay focused on advancing economic mobility outcomes for their residents despite additional challenges brought on by COVID-19. These leaders are learning from experts and peers and are centering critical conversations around the intersection of racial equity and economic justice. As the cities work to move forward from this pivotal moment, all of these actions will continue to pay dividends.
Sophie Bergmann is a Program Associate at Results for America. In her role, she works with the WWC Economic Mobility Initiative, providing support to the initiative as it helps local governments respond to national trends in rising income inequality and declining economic mobility.
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.