The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 5, 2016

How philanthropy can address barriers to social mobility

With 70 percent of people born at the bottom of the income ladder and never reaching the middle rung, some are questioning if the United States still deserves to be called the “land of opportunity.”

New research has provided greater insight into the interrelated factors that create barriers to upward mobility for low-income people, including how access to higher education, racial inequality and structural racism, and the neighborhood in which you live affect your socioeconomic trajectory. But how do we address these barriers and create effective ladders of mobility out of poverty? How do we find and implement solutions that will work?

Given the scope and complexity of issues that contribute to these barriers, addressing them requires not only pursuing the policy levers available in the public sector, but also leveraging the power of the philanthropic community. In February, Urban launched the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, a new collaborative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify new solutions and promising models.  

And last year, The Bridgespan Group asked Urban to help identify big philanthropic investments that could improve social mobility. The premise: help philanthropies and individual donors bet big and bet smart to maximize their impact. By making large, strategic gifts, philanthropy can help move the needle on social mobility in the United States.

But what should they bet on? Bridgespan identified six potential areas of investment:

  1. Improving early childhood development
  2. Establishing viable pathways to careers
  3. Reducing unintended pregnancies
  4. Decreasing overcriminalization and overincarceration
  5. Creating place-based strategies to improve access to opportunity across regions
  6. Building capacity for continuous learning and improvement of social service programs and providers 

Our team at Urban used the Social Genome Model to estimate the impact of investments in these key areas. The Social Genome Model, a collaboration between Urban, the Brookings Institution, and Child Trends, sizes the potential impact of specific policy or social interventions, making it a powerful tool for identifying and developing evidence-based solutions. The model simulates how circumstances and actions at six key life stages reverberate through a person’s life.

For the first bet, for example, we simulated how improving early childhood development through quality preschool education would affect that child’s lifetime family income.  On average, we see an improvement of approximately $15,800 in lifetime family income, with benefits across all racial and gender groups.

Our findings indicate that while the set of bets Bridgespan identified have varying degrees of impact on personal or family income, investments in each of these areas will improve social mobility.

Based on our analysis and through their broader research and engagement efforts, The Bridgespan Group has outlined an actionable set of philanthropic investments to boost social mobility, adding an important and practical lens to the ongoing discourse around social mobility in the United States.

Low-income residents arrive to select free bread and produce at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey on August 28, 2015 in Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.