As economic mobility rates in the US have stagnated, some communities have expanded their efforts to boost residents out of poverty and narrow long-standing inequities. Actionable metrics can help communities assess current barriers to mobility, set goals, and monitor their progress, but selecting a comprehensive set of metrics is no simple task.
In 2020, the Urban Institute published a framework comprising 26 mobility metrics that can help communities understand and track the factors that most influence mobility from poverty. These metrics span three distinct but interconnected dimensions: economic success, power and autonomy, and dignity and belonging. To gain a nuanced understanding of local conditions, however, communities should supplement these metrics with local data, as well as the knowledge and lived experiences of community members.
Drawing on the work of two localities—Fresno, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—we offer insights into how communities can effectively monitor progress toward their upward mobility goals by combining Urban’s evidence-based predictors with local data and community input.
Fresno DRIVE measures both population-level trends and program-specific outcomes
Launched in 2019 by the Central Valley Community Foundation (CVCF), Fresno DRIVE is a 10-year investment plan to create a more inclusive and vibrant economy in the greater Fresno region. The plan was created with input from a 300-person steering committee, representing more than 150 civic, business, and community organizations.
Christy Patch, director of collective impact at CVCF, says that the initiative’s focus on creating upward mobility stems from the recognition that “Fresno continues to experience an economy that provides too few quality jobs and a concentration of low-growth, non-exportable sectors; a human capital pipeline that leaves too many behind; and the largest racial and neighborhood inequalities in California.”
To help tackle these systemic issues, the DRIVE coalition is investing in a more inclusive economy in the region by funding civic infrastructure, affordable housing, and other initiatives that can catalyze neighborhood and economic development. To track its progress toward upward mobility, the coalition uses Urban’s mobility metrics framework to measure local population-level changes, such as the share of residents experiencing poverty and the amount of affordable housing stock. The coalition supplements these metrics with program-level outcomes, such as the number of new affordable housing units and new jobs its programs have created. In addition, DRIVE measures how well its partners are implementing the initiative’s core values of community engagement and equity.
While the coalition recognized the benefit of using metrics developed through a rigorous research process, Patch explains it was also important for them to track outcomes more directly related to their work to better understand the impact of DRIVE’s investments. Patch says she views the mobility metrics as the coalition’s “aspirational outcomes,” but acknowledges that they are affected by factors beyond DRIVE’s control. Tracking outcomes within the scope of the coalition’s work, in addition to aspirational outcomes, ultimately helps the coalition build a more holistic understanding of its impact and where to target future efforts.
Philadelphia supplements quantitative data with resident insights
As part of the city’s ongoing effort to ensure all residents are healthy, safe, and able to achieve economic prosperity, Philadelphia created a mobility action plan in 2022 with technical assistance from Urban. Using mobility metrics data, Philadelphia created a public, informational storytelling resource that captures key insights that emerged during the planning process. For example, the city has substantially higher concentrations of poverty compared with other large urban centers with similar overall poverty rates (such as Baltimore County, Maryland, and Cook County, Illinois).
Sean Finnegan, a data analyst at the city’s department of planning and development, says that exploring the data in this way has encouraged the city to “be more focused in our outcomes-based planning and program evaluation, by giving us great ideas for questions we can ask during evaluation.” While the existing resource serves as a useful baseline of current conditions, he says the city also needs a way to monitor progress. To that end, the city intends to create an internal data dashboard that will track both mobility metrics and other program-specific data over time.
Finnegan explains the mobility metrics are a “great place to start a conversation with residents about barriers to upward mobility,” but data tracking must ultimately go “hand in hand with equitable community engagement.” He says that engaging with residents—not just obtaining their input, but also sharing information with them, building trust, and forming partnerships—can help local governments gather a richer and more detailed picture of the conditions in their communities. As part of its upward mobility data collection efforts, Philadelphia contracted a local nonprofit to conduct focus groups and survey people who were previously incarcerated and have significant housing needs. These insights have enabled government stakeholders to recommend more accessible housing support programs that can help these residents navigate their unique challenges in an already difficult housing market. Finnegan says the city plans to use the mobility metrics to further “solicit insightful feedback from residents” that can help improve the city’s programs and foster inclusive upward mobility.
As the work of Fresno and Philadelphia illustrate, using actionable, evidence-based metrics and engaging residents are two critical steps localities can take to align their upward mobility efforts with community needs and work toward advancing racial equity.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.