Urban Wire The US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty
An idea grows in Brooklyn
David T. Ellwood, Nisha G. Patel
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Media Name: 20160513_us-partnership-mobility-poverty_mcgowen_057.jpg

Earlier this year, the Urban Institute and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, convening 24 leading scholars, nonprofit executives, advocates, and policy experts to develop bold ideas to boost economic and social mobility.

Our Partnership is designed to take advantage of compelling new insights into the factors that support and impede mobility and the most important and exciting programs and practical ideas to substantially increase mobility from poverty. The group is not seeking to find some grand consensus or some perfect solution. We want to identify and create a series of ideas and strategies that hold the potential to significantly move the needle. Our group is formed with the belief that too many of our current efforts are isolated, stovepiped interventions, working on one or another problem with too little recognition of the larger economic, social, and racial forces shaping mobility and poverty and limited understanding of the emerging research from areas as diverse as the changing nature of the labor market, brain and behavioral sciences, and the role of neighborhoods. We are drawn to more integrated programmatic ideas in hopes of making significant improvement in mobility from poverty.  

The partners bring diverse perspectives to the table. Among the 24 are MacArthur fellows, economists, sociologists, psychologists, TED talkers, former executive branch officials from across multiple presidential administrations, college presidents, and leaders engaged in education, advocacy, and driving social change. The majority are people of color.

We gathered for the first time in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. As we planned the inaugural meeting, we sought to tap the partners’ backgrounds, range of viewpoints, and divergent issue-area expertise to create the conditions for innovation and creative thinking. We wondered: Could we really listen to and learn from each other? Would we be willing to challenge some of our own judgments and expand the way we think about the issues?  Would we be capable of crossing our own boundaries and those of others?

So far the answer is an emphatic yes. The partners listened to the stories of people who know poverty through firsthand experience, studied existing models, visited programs, and talked—about the salience of place, the importance of race, the implications of emerging brain science, the criminal justice system, the role of market forces, changing the narrative—that is, reframing how we as a society think and talk about people experiencing poverty—and much more.

Most important, our Partnership is clearly committed to working—together in sub-groups—to develop big, actionable ideas. To help us get there, we’ll be inviting more people to the conversation that began in Brooklyn, with events, site visits, research, and analysis. We’re currently developing learning groups, teams of partners delving into some of the major themes that surfaced during the first meeting. Creating social and economic mobility is at the heart of the American Dream and has become one of the preeminent challenges facing our nation. We intend to identify promising solutions.

Over the next several months, we’ll share more information about what we’re learning and how you can engage with us in this process. In the meantime, we hope this video, shot in Brooklyn, gives you a sense of why we’re so excited and hopeful.


David Ellwood is the Scott M. Black professor of political economy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and chair of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty. Nisha Patel serves as executive director of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty.

Research Areas Wealth and financial well-being
Tags Poverty Welfare and safety net programs Racial and ethnic disparities Wealth inequality Mobility Race, gender, class, and ethnicity Racial barriers to accessing the safety net
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab