Urban Wire Understanding Local Opportunities for Upward Mobility Requires Pairing Data with Community Engagement
Lessons Learned from the Upward Mobility Cohort
Rayanne Hawkins
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We use ratings every day to guide our decisions about things to buy online, new restaurants to try, or repair services to use. Ratings relay information about how a person experienced a product or service, but unless they write a lengthy review, you can’t know why something is rated the way it is.

The same can be true for data on upward mobility, or measures of affordable housing, quality jobs, political engagement, and other aspects of a community that support mobility from poverty. Without more information on the local context, it’s hard to know why the numbers are the way they are or how to change them.

That’s why the Urban Institute has developed a dataset, called the Mobility Metrics which localities can use to learn more about local conditions for economic mobility. As part of the Boosting Upward Mobility project, Urban partnered with a cohort of eight county and city governments in 2021 and 2022 to help them identify local conditions that enable or prevent mobility and equity.

With Urban’s technical assistance, two localities, Boone County, Missouri, and Summit County, Ohio, engaged in a Mobility Action Planning process that used metrics and data to shape the priorities of their mobility efforts. From this process, we learned three lessons about how local governments can pair community engagement and local data with the Mobility Metrics to understand upward mobility in their communities.

  1. Invest in local data capacity

Local governments differ in their capacities to collect, match, and analyze data. Among the eight counties we partnered with, those with community data dashboards and dedicated staff to analyze data had an easier time understanding how the Mobility Metrics provided a snapshot of their community’s disparities and opportunities. Boone County already had both a data analyst and an online data dashboard that reported progress on metrics of interest to residents. Similarly, a local research firm in Summit County conducts an annual community pulse survey to understand the important issues facing county residents.

  1. Find local data sources that supplement the Mobility Metrics

Localities are rich with administrative data, but they have to know how to access and interpret those data. Urban encouraged counties in the cohort to supplement the Mobility Metrics with local data to better understand trends in local racial, social, and economic indicators. Boone’s data analyst created posters combining local data and the Mobility Metrics to share with residents and community stakeholders.

In addition to analyzing the survey results, Summit County created a mobility coalition made up of representatives of key pillars of the Upward Mobility Framework, such as education, health, and opportunity-rich neighborhoods. The coalition reviewed the Mobility Metrics and offered perspectives on the data. When the data revealed a high juvenile arrest rate in Summit, the mobility planning team interviewed local stakeholders from the family court, police, and public school systems to gather more information.

  1. Engage community members to determine why data trend one way or another

Upward mobility is not just about economic success. It’s also about being valued in your community and having the power and autonomy to make decisions that affect your life. When communities understand their economic mobility data and why numbers are trending in a certain direction, local governments can more effectively use those data and community input to develop actionable mobility goals.

Summit and Boone Counties relied on quantitative and qualitative data to identify strategic priorities, areas of improvement, and racial disparities. Boone used the posters mentioned above in a data walk where community members selected three upward mobility issues to address through committees using a results-based accountability framework. Boone also added new metrics to their existing data dashboard.

Summit County engaged residents experiencing economic hardship through a second survey seeking feedback on the county’s proposed areas of focus for its Mobility Action Plan. The community agreed that mental health and juvenile justice were problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that should be tackled as strategic priorities in the plan.

These are just a few actions local governments can take to improve upward mobility using Urban’s Mobility Metrics. Local policymakers can advance mobility efforts and right-size potential solutions by investing in their communities’ capacities to analyze local data and by collecting feedback and information on the experiences of people enduring poverty as they set economic mobility goals.


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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 Economic mobility and inequality
Tags Community and economic development Community data use Community engagement Economic well-being Inequality and mobility Mobility
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
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