The Economic Mobility Catalog — Local strategies to accelerate upward mobility for youth, families, and communities
By Ross Tilchin
Deeply ingrained in the American imagination is the notion that if you work hard, you should be able to improve your quality of life.
The reality is that upward economic mobility for low-income Americans has become increasingly rare, particularly for communities of color. While children through much of the 20th century often grew up to earn more than their parents, in recent decades, inequality has become more frequently inherited.
Many powerful forces have contributed to stagnant and declining rates of economic mobility. To fully reverse this trend, major state and federal reforms are needed. But local governments can make a significant impact in improving lifetime outcomes for their residents. And as the global pandemic and the civic uprisings of the past several months have shown, city and county leaders are on the frontlines of public demands for change.
The question for many local governments is where to begin. What are the most potent ways for cities and counties to improve economic mobility? What sorts of programs have been proven to work? How have other communities implemented effective strategies?
Results for America has heard these questions frequently in our work with local governments across the country. We have found strong demand for a single, easy-to-use resource that provides information on the ways that local leaders can best improve opportunity for their residents.
In response, Results for America has created the Economic Mobility Catalog. Drawing from academic research and information from several government and philanthropic “clearinghouse” resources, it is designed to increase knowledge of policies and programs proven to boost economic mobility and lower the barriers that local governments face in adapting these strategies. While it is currently in its beta version, it will soon include implementation-oriented case studies on how specific local governments have put evidence-based strategies into action. Content on specific evidence-based policies and administrative reforms is also forthcoming.
The catalog is guided by three principles.
First, improving economic mobility requires a holistic approach. Despite the often-siloed nature of government, no one area of policymaking can improve economic mobility on its own. Meaningful changes to the status quo will require investment and reform in every area of policy that touches the lives of low-income children and families.
Recognizing the need for interventions across the policy spectrum, the Economic Mobility Catalog contains information on strategies across the following policy areas:
- Education and youth development
- Health and well-being
- Workforce development
- Community development and financial security
- Justice and public safety
Second, improving economic mobility can only be accomplished with a coordinated approach throughout individuals’ lives. The disadvantages that low-income Americans face — and particularly for communities of color — are profound and deeply-rooted. Supports that occur at one or only a few points in a person’s life are unlikely to make a trajectory-shifting difference.
Acknowledging the importance of coordinating public policy and programming services from “cradle to career,” the Economic Mobility Catalog sorts evidence-based strategies by the outcomes they help advance. The framework used is drawn from the Urban Institute and the Strive Together Network.
The outcomes that guide the Catalog are as follows:
- Strong and healthy families
- Supportive communities
- Kindergarten readiness
- Strong academic and social outcomes by adolescence
- High school graduation
- Post-secondary access and completion
- High-quality employment
Third, strengthening upward economic mobility can only be accomplished by pursuing racial equity. For generations, public policy was purposefully designed to limit black and brown peoples’ opportunities for economic advancement. Even since the Civil Rights Movement, many government policies have exacerbated the disadvantages that communities of color face, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Today, many local policies continue to compound inequality, as school funding, neighborhood safety, policing, housing quality, access to healthcare, job opportunities, and other important determinants of mobility vary dramatically between predominantly white and predominantly non-white neighborhoods. The civic uprisings sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police have brought fresh urgency to these longstanding inequalities.
As local governments attempt to improve economic mobility for their residents, they must recognize that success requires an unwavering commitment to racial equity. In other words, improving economic mobility outcomes requires eliminating the racial and ethnic gaps in outcomes.
To make racial equity a reality, developing or adapting evidence-based strategies is only one step. It is the implementation of these strategies that will ultimately determine their potency in improving economic mobility. And no implementation effort can succeed unless it is developed in partnership with and tailored to the needs of the communities that it seeks to serve.
Recognizing this, the Catalog’s next phase will feature case studies that focus on how local governments:
- Engage community members to inform program design
- Partner with neighborhood-based organizations
- Conduct communications, outreach, and recruitment
- Design program materials to suit local needs
For local leaders, the process of improving economic mobility is a long and difficult one, often marked by imperfect evidence, implementation complexity, and painful tradeoffs. But the difficulty of making progress is not an excuse for inaction. With the Economic Mobility Catalog, we hope to help local policymakers make the case for and create their own action plan for improving mobility outcomes for residents, based on “what works” for cities and counties prepared to take on one of the defining challenges of our time.
Note: The Catalog is a work in progress and seeks to be a dynamic, regularly evolving information platform. We welcome all corrections, suggestions, and feedback. To contact us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Results for America is grateful for the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for this project.
Ross Tilchin is the Associate Director of Strategy and Impact at Results for America.