Evidence and Ideas for Change The role of work in providing dignity and upward mobility
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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Welcome to the first in my new series of dispatches, in which I share thoughts on a pressing issue and, sometimes, reflect on the relevance of new work from the Urban Institute.

At this challenging time for the country, we must seek solutions from new sources. Changemakers can be found in county councils in small towns, in innovative social enterprises and service providers in big cities, in board rooms of global enterprises, in tech start-ups, and in new and established philanthropies. I want to strengthen the Urban Institute’s dialogue with changemakers like you, finding actionable insights from research, facts, and evidence to help us move forward together.

I hope you will find these notes provocative enough to keep opening, clicking, and responding. I am eager to hear from you.


Even in a polarizing time, it is possible to find values that unite us and ideas that offer a path forward. I am inspired to such optimism by the work of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation–funded collaboration among 24 diverse partners that is chaired by David Ellwood, directed by Nisha Patel, and supported and staffed by the Urban Institute. The partners were tasked not with consensus, but with generating ideas for how to dramatically increase economic mobility. Every partner does not necessarily endorse each idea proposal under the Partnership’s interconnected strategies for addressing upward mobility, but in Restoring the American Dream partners did coalesce around a fresh and insightful overarching definition of mobility from poverty that resonates across ideology:

The Partnership’s collective ambition is that all people achieve a reasonable standard of living ith the dignity that comes from having power over their lives and being engaged in and valued by their community.

In American culture, and across the world, work not only offers economic rewards, but also is one of the most powerful pathways to dignity, autonomy, and a sense of belonging. Yet even in a close to full-employment economy, work fails to deliver economic progress, autonomy, and dignity for too many in our country. So, across the ideological spectrum, experts advance proposals they think will help make employment a better pathway strategy for upward mobility. Some propose more stringent work requirements on those who seek public benefits. (See this brief for more on the evidence about the effectiveness and limitations of work requirements.) Others say we need to ensure that all work pays a living wage. And even some proponents of a guaranteed income would provide it only to people who work, including unpaid caregivers and students.

The challenge of ensuring that work serves as an avenue to dignity will only deepen as the nature of work changes profoundly with new technologies and economic relationships. As work is transformed, we will need, for example, new ways to provide access to health care, lifelong training, and retirement savings—key components of economic security necessary to dignity, autonomy, and a sense of belonging. In Imagining a Future of Work that Fosters Mobility for All, two Partnership members and an Urban expert offer a slate of ideas to help build a more inclusive economy. They begin the task to which we all must dedicate ourselves: finding ways to make work provide mobility, broadly understood, for all. While the task ahead is difficult, I am heartened about the prospect for progress because the goal—dignity, autonomy, and economic success through work when possible—is one place where we largely agree.

I hope you’ll take a moment to learn more about the Mobility Partnership’s definition of and strategies for mobility and let us know what you think.

Upcoming Urban events:
Feb. 7 - For Ahkeem film screening

Feb. 15 - Webinar: Imagining a Future of Work that Fosters Mobility for All