The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 20, 2016

How can we promote economic mobility?

September 20, 2016

Increasing economic mobility for the most vulnerable requires both an evidence base and practitioners on the ground to transform research into solutions.

Hundreds of researchers and practitioners—including representatives from the 40 nonprofit recipients of the Citi Foundation’s Community Progress Makers Fund—gathered in DC on Wednesday to discuss the barriers to mobility that low-income Americans face and the evidence and experience that might inform strategies for breaking down those barriers.

“What has worked? What has not? What more can we do?” US attorney general Loretta Lynch posed to the audience, adding, “We have to understand that the challenges we face are too complex, too deeply rooted, and too closely entwined with one another to be surmounted by one single agency focusing on one single problem.”

Wednesday’s event, cohosted by the Citi Foundation and the Urban Institute, addressed several of those entwined issues, featuring discussions on housing, work, criminal justice, and economic development, and how community economic development can promote upward economic mobility.

“Today's headlines are filled with what we've known for a long time: a lack of mobility has profound social impacts, and the growing wealth gap affects all of us,” Citi Foundation president Brandee McHale said.

“So many of our cities have increasingly thriving engines of growth, but not always do those engines bring everyone along. In fact, sometimes they can push people further away from those places of opportunity,” said Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell. “The Citi Foundation understands that community economic development is not just bricks and sticks; it's a lot of things.”

Lynch emphasized the importance of working across agencies to tackle multiple barriers at once. She highlighted the work of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), a joint effort of 22 federal agencies to expand access to legal aid that Lynch cochairs with Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council. Lynch noted that in eviction cases, 90 percent of landlords have counsel, but 95 percent of tenants represent themselves. Similarly, she said, in 85 percent of cases dealing with child custody and child support, at least one parent is self-represented.

“Every day, countless Americans are in court grappling with life-altering challenges like foreclosure, eviction, debt, and family instability—far too often, doing so without counsel,” Lynch said.

LAIR hopes improving legal aid can improve other outcomes and ultimately promote economic mobility. LAIR recognizes—as all of Wednesday’s speakers pointed out—that barriers to mobility are intertwined, and addressing those links is critical to helping people climb the economic ladder.

“Where [economic development] is working best, just about every one of those agencies and issues is present,” director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan said.

Wednesday’s panel discussions paired a researcher with a practitioner to discuss other interrelated challenges, such as the barriers to creating affordable housing in opportunity-rich neighborhoods, how new online platforms are changing the nature of work and what that means for low-skill workers, and the challenges of serving long-term residents in changing cities.

Each panel agreed that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, practitioners and policymakers must consider place and context, and must include robust, ongoing evaluation with any new policy. Donovan recalled how the Moving to Opportunity demonstration initially had negative results but later showed vast improvements in physical and mental health, particularly for women and girls.

“It's the stuff I think we knew in our bones, but we didn't have the evidence to talk to a congressman or a mayor's office and say, ‘look, this stuff can make a difference,’” Donovan said.

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks at the Westin City Center in Washington, DC on September 14, 2016. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute

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