Life experiences that exert outsized impact on economic mobility

Mobility experiences occur across life stages and are influenced by an array of structural factors e.g. gender bias, racial discrimination and wealthy inequality.
Mobility experiences

“Growing up, being really impoverished, you don’t think about the future that much. You are in the mindset of, ‘Where’s my next meal? Am I going to have a place to live next month?”
— Michelle, age 35, OH (Lived Experiences Research 2021)

Much like Michelle, millions of people experience poverty in the U.S., but despite their aspirations and hard work, many of them struggle to make ends meet and could be left navigating a sense of hopelessness about the future.

I’ve shared my own personal experience in a previous blog. A life-changing event not only left my mother grappling with uncertainty about our family’s economic future but also facing barriers to accessing safety net benefits at a time when she needed those supports the most.

It’s life experiences like these, the ones Michelle faced and others, including systemic barriers around race, gender, and socioeconomic status, that profoundly affect a person’s economic mobility.

Years ago, every generation could expect to become more financially secure than their parents. Today, that’s not the case, as the data show that economic mobility in the U.S. has been on the decline since the 1940s.

To help more people achieve long-term financial security, the foundation recently announced our commitment to improving our country’s economic system so it performs better for 50 million people experiencing poverty. We’re primarily focused on those individuals earning less than $30,000 annually or $60,000 for a family of four.

We care about the day-to-day experiences of this population. As part of the work through our Economic Mobility and Opportunity Strategy, we partnered with Camber Collective to launch the Mobility Experiences research series to understand which moments in life have the greatest impact on an individual’s chances of moving up the economic ladder and determining lifetime earnings.

Publishing these findings is part of our effort to tell a more accurate story about what so many people experience every day in the U.S. and to ensure we all know there are very concrete things we can do to help improve economic mobility for many. These tools can help increase the leverage and strategic impact of public and private resources invested in advancing upward mobility.

The Mobility Experiences research tells us three key things: the 28 life experiences proven to affect lifetime income, the actual and perceived impact of each of those experiences, and whether philanthropic investments are flowing toward the highest-impact life experiences.

This series draws on over 230 research articles published between 1990 and 2022 from numerous journals in areas such as economics, education, health policy, and sociology. Through surveys and in-depth interviews, this research centers the voices of over 4,000 people – spanning all walks of life, experiencing poverty – including their perceptions and needs related to economic mobility. 

The first report in the series, Life Experiences that Power Lifetime Income, draws on decades of research to identify 28 life experiences that significantly impact income across one’s lifetime. These “mobility experiences” fall into six categories: health, education, career, finance, community, and relationships.

While each is important, the research reveals that some experiences have an outsized impact on individuals. Some may not be surprising, such as graduating with a degree in a high-paying field of study. But others, such as receiving mentorship in adolescence, shed light on which interventions could potentially be the most pivotal for changing the trajectory of a young person’s life.

The findings not only strengthen the evidence around what contributes to economic mobility but also highlight the need to take a closer look at life experiences that are even more fundamental, such as having access to a nourishing diet in childhood, which is tied to well-being later in life. 

Many of these interventions don’t require policy; they are things we can do in everyday life. They just require us to pay attention.

Through this research, we heard meaningful stories from people like Derrick in Ohio:

“I didn’t go to a good high school... There were a lot of fights…[and] not much learning. If I had a better high school, I probably would have been able to get a scholarship for college and then a job. I think high school is a critical stage to success.”

When people have the power to access certain critical life experiences, such as pursuing postsecondary education or building strong community ties, their economic outcomes can improve substantially. And when we center people’s voices in research, the insights are richer – helping us not only understand the “what” but the “why” and “how”.

I’m excited about what we’re learning from this report and how we’re using the research and data to inform our investments. I encourage other funders to use this research the same way, activating resources toward interventions that help remove barriers to economic mobility and enhance access to important life experiences. 

What we're reading