The inspiring ways county leaders are working to increase opportunities for economic mobility in their communities

by Allan Golston, U.S. President, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
US Program President Allan Golston addresses county leaders at the 2023 National Association of Counties Annual Conference in Travis County, Texas.
US Program President Allan Golston addresses county leaders at the 2023 National Association of Counties Annual Conference in Travis County, Texas. National Association of Counties
Allan Golston
Blog Post

Economic mobility in the United States, one of the core pillars of the American Dream, is going in the wrong direction.  The data show that economic mobility has been declining for generations. Consider this: 90% of children born in 1940 earned more than their parents, but for children born in the 1980s, the percentage was only 50%.

This trend reflects the national challenge of decreasing economic mobility that we face today. Despite decades of economic growth, the hopes and financial security of millions of people in the U.S. are too often dashed by systemic racism and barriers such as stagnant wages, low job quality, and the red tape associated with accessing safety net benefits and other services. 

I witnessed these economic struggles firsthand through my mother, who worked her way through nursing school 55 years ago. She faced numerous structural and systemic barriers that prevented her from realizing her full economic potential, including being paid less as a nurse than her peers and a lack of access to affordable childcare. Despite her aspirations to climb the economic ladder and design a future of her own making, and although she has no regrets, barriers beyond her control prevented her from achieving her dreams. 

Like many national challenges, there is a need to address the systems and structures that lead to inequitable outcomes and dreams deferred. However, it would be a mistake to assume that this can only be tackled at the national level. 

Research shows that the neighborhood where a child grows up shapes their outcomes in adulthood, making economic mobility a highly local issue. That’s why I was honored to speak last month to more than 3,000 county leaders about economic mobility at the National Association of Counties (NACo) Annual Conference in Travis County, Texas.

Allan Golston and the Hon. Denise Winfrey
Allan Golston and the Hon. Denise Winfrey – President of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and Board Member, Will County, Illinois – at the 2023 NACo Annual Conference in Travis County, Texas.
County officials are key actors in communities whose administrative duties touch on everything from assessing and collecting property taxes to road, bridge, and airport maintenance. They also are central players in social safety-net programs and other policies that can hinder or enable economic mobility for their residents. 

In preparation for my talk, I reached out to county leaders to hear about the lessons they’ve learned from implementing economic mobility strategies that could help others. I came away from those conversations even more inspired and with a deeper appreciation of what county leaders are doing every day to improve the overall economic resiliency of their communities. 

From those conversations, and building on insights gathered from our Economic Mobility and Opportunity Strategy partners and grantees, I offered the following three insights to county leaders at the NACo conference:  

Insight #1: Use Evidence-based Tools and Insights

The more we listen to and learn from the field, the more we see the impact of using evidence-based tools to drive economic mobility more effectively. For example, in King County, Washington, leaders developed the Determinants of Equity to identify indicators that establish a baseline for equity for all residents. This report outlines the supports and services that everyone in King County needs access to in order to reach their full potential, such as early childhood supports, job training, housing, and transportation. 

The Economic Mobility Catalog developed by our partner Results for America addresses all these areas and it was used as part of the research Carrie Cihak, evidence and impact officer for King County, was conducting to develop a county strategy to support childcare worker compensation.

With more than 200 evidence-based policies and practices and dozens of case studies that underscore NACo’s findings on the seven levers county leaders can use to drive economic mobility, this catalog is designed to help local leaders make better-informed decisions when selecting and implementing effective economic mobility strategies. Think of it as a resource standing at the ready for any county official looking for impactful approaches to spur economic mobility in their communities.

Insight #2: Small Steps to Address Common Challenges Can Make a Big Impact 

There are actions that many county leaders are taking to make lives better now for people experiencing poverty. One of them is removing the red tape that complicates access to public supports such as local healthcare, rental assistance, transportation, and 911 services. Commissioner Lori Stegmann of East Multnomah County, Oregon, and her team are streamlining access to local benefits for residents through a portal called the Common Services Application Pilot

This electronic application is a one-stop shop for people applying for local benefits from 13 different programs, consolidating questions from 84 to 19 for parents and families and from 70 to 17 for seniors. Efforts like these show how small changes at the local level can make a big difference in the lives of people who need and are eligible for economic support right now but struggle with the process of accessing aid. Helping people with these short-term economic needs can put them on a path toward longer-term financial security. 

Allan Golston addresses county leaders at the 2023 National Association of Counties Annual Conference in Travis County, Texas.
Allan Golston addresses county leaders at the 2023 National Association of Counties Annual Conference in Travis County, Texas.

Insight #3: Interrogate Your Own Data and Make Sure It Truly Reflects the Experience of Your Community 

Questioning your own assumptions is a critical step to truly understanding the problem you’re trying to solve, and which solutions would be most effective. Data and evidence are fundamental to how we develop and implement our education and economic mobility strategies at the foundation. But interrogating that data and making the necessary adjustments are just as fundamental to that work. 

NACo identified a strong link between advancements in economic mobility and access to technology, information, and digital literacy. Essentially, broadband access provides more opportunities for employment and income creation and a connection to other economic resources and information. 

Commissioner David Stout of El Paso County, Texas, shared with me that when his county wanted to better understand residents' access to high-speed internet, they looked at the data. Simple enough. But that data showed 95% of residents had internet coverage. It wasn’t until they questioned their assumptions, dug deeper, and launched their own survey did they learn that only 50% of residents had access, not 95%. Interrogating data can lead to better decision-making, especially around where to provide resources and support. 

County leaders are doing incredible work to increase opportunities for economic mobility for residents in their communities. The three insights I shared are inspired by that work. These examples excite me about the future we can create together – a future where everyone in our education system and the workforce has the power and autonomy to determine their destiny and thrive in communities where they are valued.