Urban Wire Turning insights into action to increase upward mobility
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation asked the Urban Institute to gather extraordinary leaders and explore a bold, exciting question: What would it take to dramatically increase mobility from poverty?

The challenge led to the formation of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty—24 leaders from academia, the faith community, philanthropy, and the private sector—led by chair David Ellwood and executive director Nisha Patel with staffing and support from Urban. Earlier this month, more than 400 people gathered at THEARC in Southeast Washington, DC—and thousands more joined virtually—to hear the Partnership’s answers to that daring question and how to translate those answers into action.

Informed by hundreds of residents and experts in communities around the country, the Partnership’s work offers a potential framework around which philanthropy, government, and the business sector can come together locally and nationally to increase upward mobility.

Collaboration was a theme set early on, during a joint presentation by two Partnership members from opposite ends of the political spectrum—Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and john powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society—as they explained the danger of “othering” people and the power of “bridging” narratives.

“Poverty is not just lack of material things. It’s lack of dignity, of belonging, of agency, and of power,” powell said. “We start with this notion of us and them. That’s the issue of poverty in the United States—refusing to acknowledge the dignity of the ‘other.’ The stories we tell should be stories that bridge and expand the ‘we.’ When we do that, we can have a true pathway to mobility.”

Holistic strategies to achieve upward mobility

This recognition of our shared humanity infused the Partnership’s work. Members landed on their ideas through an evidence-informed process that included listening to and learning from people affected by poverty in more than 30 communities. I joined four of those trips, where we learned about the strengths, struggles, and aspirations of people around the country who are working to get ahead and the structural forces that challenge their progress.

Those visits, coupled with the input of experts in communities nationwide, informed the Partnership’s framework, which accounts for the many resources people need to achieve upward mobility. It consists of five interconnected strategies:

Underlying each strategy is a holistic definition of mobility that emerged from members’ collaboration. The definition embodies three core principles: economic success, power and autonomy, and being valued in community. And within each strategy are specific ideas that philanthropies, governments, and businesses can implement, which can be found on MobilityPartnership.org.

Rahsaan Bernard of Building Bridges Across the River speaks at the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty's event 'Dramatically Increasing Mobility from Poverty' on May 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. The US Partnership on Mobility is funded by the Bill & Mel

Rahsaan Bernard of Building Bridges Across the River speaks at the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty's event 'Dramatically Increasing Mobility from Poverty' on May 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. The US Partnership on Mobility is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and staffed and supported by the Urban Institute. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute.

“We can’t go into a city unless people are working together,” said Peter Scher, chairman of the Mid-Atlantic region and global head of corporate responsibility for JPMorgan Chase & Co. during the Partnership’s panel on moving ideas to action. “You cannot succeed unless you have this cross-sector buy-in.”

The importance of community-based institutions that shore people up and help them reach their highest potential was also spotlighted at the event and was made especially clear in the experiences of people who shared their insights with partners during site visits and with the audience.

One of those speakers, Dilza Gonzalez of San Jose, California, talked about how her aspiration to attend college was squelched in middle school. “I was taught that people like me weren’t supposed to succeed,” she said. She believed failure was her fate until a local organization and community invested in her, showing her otherwise.

“Sometimes, you need other people to remind you of who you are,” Gonzalez said. She added that each of us needs supporters “who speak to what you can become. [A] community full of people like that can change the world. It definitely changed my life.”

For me, the power of the Partnership’s framework is evident in how right it feels. I have focused my career on improving economic outcomes for American families in the belief that doing so brings respect and belonging in pursuit of the American dream. But the Partnership’s explicit focus on dignity, guided by the experiences of people like Dilza and what matters to them, reveals why economic success is important and yet insufficient. 

Inspiring new investment in and thinking about mobility

The Partnership’s insights are already influencing a new chapter of national and local philanthropy, including at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. During a panel at the Partnership’s capstone event, CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann announced that the foundation will invest nearly $160 million over the next four years to help identify and remove barriers to mobility in the US.

“This conversation helps me articulate the philosophy we’re using for that money,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “How we think about data getting back to decisionmakers is an essential question for us.”

We have been overwhelmed with the interest and enthusiasm for the framework and the ideas coming from local and regional voices who are tackling mobility from poverty in communities around the country. The Partnership’s work is inspiring community philanthropies as well as city and county policymakers, agency administrators, service providers, and businesses.

The Partnership’s biggest impact will be how it shapes and informs ongoing work throughout the country long after its efforts wind down in June. At Urban, the Partnership’s ideas are already inspiring us to rethink how we frame our research and the evidence-informed guidance we provide policymakers, philanthropists, and practitioners.

Urban has always aimed to offer insights that help expand opportunity and improve people’s lives. Now, our work is increasingly guided by the principles of economic success, power and autonomy, and being valued in one’s community that the Partnership elevates.

Those of us working toward a fairer, more inclusive world now have a set of powerful ideas and strategies to build upon. I look forward to seeing how we all collaborate to move these ideas into actions that make a meaningful, lasting difference for people.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted 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.


Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Families with low incomes Poverty Income and wealth distribution Inequality and mobility