When I think about the millions of people who work hard in this country yet face enormous and systemic barriers to economic mobility, I think about my mother. Let me explain.
I was born into a family that was solidly in the middle class in Mexico, Missouri, and in 1985, when I was three years old, my father passed away suddenly. The immediate emotional and economic strain that this placed on our family seemed insurmountable. My mother moved me and my older sister to Phoenix, Arizona, to start over and she raised us as a single parent with no steady income or health benefits. She was a realtor at the time.
Millions of People Face Systemic Barriers to Economic Mobility
My mother spent the rest of her professional life navigating the hurdles of raising us and trying to hold our family together. When I was 25, she passed away of breast cancer, after keeping a lump in her breast a secret for 11 months because she did not have health insurance. She never again experienced the sense of economic security we all aspire to achieve.
As I think about my mother, the hurdles she faced and the economic instability our family experienced, I’m reminded that, as hard as those times were for our family, they’re not nearly as hard as what so many other families experiencing poverty in this country face today.
Millions of people work hard yet struggle with systemic barriers to economic mobility. Race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status continue to predict economic security, and opportunities for economic mobility are on the decline. One indicator is that 90% of children born in 1940 in the U.S. earned more than their parents did. For children born in the 1980s, though, that figure has dropped to just 50%. Across the country, Black and Hispanic households continue to endure lower incomes, less wealth, higher payment burdens, and greater economic uncertainty than their white counterparts.
Although education is the key to creating opportunities to climb the economic ladder, research also shows that education alone is not enough to guarantee that everyone will have access to opportunities or experience long-term, equitable economic outcomes.
What do we do about this? I think we have an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet in a way that honors their dignity, their aspirations, as well as their sense of power and autonomy.
In 2022, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made a four-year, $460 million commitment through our Economic Mobility and Opportunity (EMO) Strategy to help remove the barriers that prevent more than 50 million people experiencing poverty – those earning at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, which means an income of $29,160 for an individual or $60,000 for a family of four – from climbing the economic ladder.
This week, we’re announcing over $100 million in new partnerships and investments that are part of that commitment and represent our strategy’s largest single year of grantmaking to date.
These initiatives will help remove barriers to economic mobility for our focus population, many of whom are not in school, are workers skilled through alternative routes – also known as “STARs” – and are in and out of the labor market. They are dispersed throughout the U.S. but about half are concentrated in the very large metro areas and about 40% live in the South. Women make up 55% of this population, and this group is comprised disproportionately of Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other people of color compared to the general population.
Our investments are being implemented across three pillars: 1) Making Lives Better Now, 2) Creating and Sharing User-friendly Tools and Insights, and 3) Bringing Together Partners Across Sectors.
Making Lives Better Now
In our Making Lives Better Now pillar, the idea here is that while economic mobility is a long-term goal for our focus population, there are some things that families and individuals need right now to achieve short-term economic stability.
Through this pillar, we’re building on the great work of other funders and organizations to connect STARs with employers in search of talent, increase access to safety net benefits for those seeking support in times of need, and pilot new ideas through research and development to address people’s daily life challenges.
Families and Workers Fund, through our $20 million investment, will help improve the capacity of states – using technology – to strengthen access to underutilized safety net benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Unemployment Insurance, Earned Income Tax Credit, and Child Tax Credits.
Through our $16.9 million investment, Opportunity@Work will catalyze labor market data and technology infrastructure improvements to benefit more than half of the working population who are STARs. The partnership will enable Opportunity@Work to build momentum among employers and local workforce leaders for more inclusive hiring practices through tools like their Stellarsight dashboard and Stellarworx sourcing platform.
Creating and Sharing User-friendly Tools and Insights
Our second pillar is Creating and Sharing User-friendly Tools and Insights. Here we're particularly focused on what local governments need to improve economic mobility in their communities for our focus population and on helping small and medium-sized businesses – which are the primary employers of approximately 66 percent of our focus population – improve job quality for workers.
With our $29.2 million investment, Urban Institute is moving forward with the development and application of the Upward Mobility Framework, an easily accessible, research-based measurement and assessment tool that local governments and their partners can use to bolster the conditions that increase upward mobility and narrow racial inequities in their communities.
Through our $15.2 million investment, Prosperity Now, Families and Workers Fund, and Pacific Community Ventures will provide technical assistance and tools to help small and medium-sized businesses improve job quality for workers earning low wages by offering benefits such as paid sick leave, employee assistance programs, and retirement plans.
Results for America, through our $21.2 million investment, will help local decision-makers become aware of and use data and evidence-based tools such as the Upward Mobility Framework, the Economic Mobility Catalog, and the research from Opportunity Insights to improve economic mobility for our focus population in their communities.
Bringing Together Partners Across Sectors
Through our third pillar, Bringing Together Partners Across Sectors, we’re taking a very intentional look at how we can better support the field. We believe we can play a role in increasing coordination, facilitating measurement and goal setting, and investing in diverse talent pools that not only enable the work we’re doing across our EMO Strategy to happen but across the economic mobility field overall.
Through our investment, Urban Institute will help diagnose the barriers to impact across this field and support greater coordination and collaboration to address those barriers. This work includes helping to align the field around shared goals and metrics for economic mobility for our focus population.
We couldn’t be more excited to announce these new partnerships and investments and to share the future impact they will have on the lives of millions of people experiencing poverty. It’s been a journey of listening, learning, and partnering with the field over the past few years to get this point and I’m so proud of our entire EMO team for helping bring these partnerships to fruition.
Advancing the Economic Well-Being of Everyone
I carry a letter from my mother around with me to remind me every day of why I do this work. In that letter, my mother gave me a lot of life advice, but in the last paragraph, she said, "Don't forget people like me."
Those words help ground my belief that collectively, we can help our country’s economic system perform better for people experiencing poverty, making our country’s economy stronger and advancing the economic well-being of everyone.