What We Do

Economic Mobility and Opportunity

Strategy Overview


An English as a Second Language (ESL) class at a mixed-income housing development in Seattle.

our goal:

Ensure there are more actors at all levels committed to dramatically increasing mobility from poverty over the next decade, and to provide better information and tools so they can be even more effective and efficient.

The Challenge

Our U.S. work began two decades ago with a program to help U.S. public libraries offer free internet access. From there, we expanded into investments to improve U.S. education: first K-12, then higher-education, and, in a few states, preschool. Our experience doing this work has taught us that many of the greatest barriers to opportunity occur outside the classroom. The ability to access stable housing, a job that promises a pathway to increased earnings, and a safe, healthy community in which to live are fundamental and yet beyond the reach of too many people.

There are no simple answers to reducing poverty, but we’ve identified several issues that limit Americans’ ability to live productive, dignified lives. Among them: not enough collaboration between groups tackling the underlying issues of poverty; fragmented information about the problem and evidence-based solutions; more and more people relying on jobs with low wages, erratic work hours, and limited or no benefits; and persistent myths and misconceptions about poverty that hold people back and lead to less effective policy and programmatic solutions.

The Opportunity

Our strategic vision is to ensure there are more actors at all levels committed to dramatically increasing mobility from poverty over the next decade, and to provide better information and tools so they can be even more effective and efficient. We believe we can play a catalytic role by investing in data and evidence that close knowledge gaps and lay the groundwork for improved outcomes and new opportunities for leaders from the public, private, non-profit, and academia sectors to work together to achieve even greater impact.

While the problem might feel entrenched and overwhelming, we are optimistic that progress can made with partnership and collaboration. We are committed to finding ways to enable more Americans to climb the economic ladder and improve their lives.

Our Strategy

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is launching our work on U.S. economic mobility and opportunity with a commitment of $158 million over four years to help lift more Americans out of poverty.

There is already an army of people working on economic mobility across the country. They have deep experience and great ideas, but often they don’t have the support they need to be as successful as they can be. Our goal is to provide better information and tools so people working on these issues can be even more effective and efficient.

Areas of Focus

We have identified five areas where we hope to help others expand and extend their work:

Closing Data Gaps

One of the biggest gaps local leaders have acknowledged is the need for good data on many of the fundamental factors contributing to poverty in America. We don’t know what characteristics of neighborhoods have the greatest impact on increasing mobility. We don’t know what causes violence to go down in some cities, but not others. The economic mobility field needs more and better information to diagnose specific barriers to mobility and then develop interventions that work.

We’ve funded work to measure eviction rates for communities across the country for the first time. Now advocates can better allocate resources to help tenants, and policy makers can design policies that balance the interests of tenants and landlords.

We’ve also funded research that allows us to track how economic mobility varies neighborhood by neighborhood. This has produced powerful findings: even when children grow up in the same neighborhoods with parents earning very similar incomes, African-American boys still fare worse in later life than white boys in almost every single neighborhood in the U.S. This work is already leading to practical new interventions on the ground, such as helping families already moving relocate to higher mobility areas that are not dramatically higher cost.

Empowering Local Actors

Many communities around the country are trying hard to respond to the daily realities of poverty. But local leaders are often disconnected from each other, from state-of-the-art knowledge and from funding. We believe we can help address that isolation.

Our strategy aims to: systematically engage local leaders to find out what works and what gets in the way when tackling poverty; partner with local and national funders to incentivize and support the most innovative ideas to help local communities; and connect local leaders with experts to help them navigate their challenges.

Improving Coordination and Leverage

Because poverty is linked to a range of factors, such as health, housing, race, gender, family and jobs, we need much better coordination between sectors. Nonprofits, government, philanthropy and business also have to work together.

We plan to invest in: a hub to connect practitioners with funders so the best ideas are brought to life; partnerships with other funders around the development of new technologies and tools to help service providers with their jobs; and hosting opportunities to connect funders to communities and those in poverty so there is an ongoing exchange of information about what is needed, what is working and what is not.

Work and Opportunity

Working class jobs in the industrial economy used to pay a living wage. Working class jobs in the modern-day economy do not, and in many cases, they also don’t offer benefits, job security, full-time work or career opportunities. Our grantmaking is focused on five issues: 1.) understanding what career pathways and interventions lead to upward mobility; 2.) defining what attributes make a job a “good” job from the perspective of both workers and employers; 3.) encouraging employers to adopt practices that help workers address the challenges they face in and out of the workplace, build inclusive talent pipelines, and make sense for the business; 4.) helping workers access supports that make stability possible and ultimately lead to economic mobility and security; and 5.) investing in viable job-training models that reach non-college educated workers.

Increasing Public Understanding

Much of the language that is used – and what people who influence policies and programs believe about poverty – is often informed by misperceptions about why people are poor and how they become prosperous. This often leads to solutions that are misaligned and limit progress.

We will fund comprehensive research to identify the most accurate and salient messages about poverty and mobility, as well as strategies to help leaders and people start using this more accurate, constructive narrative to effect change.


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