What We Do

Economic Mobility and Opportunity

Strategy Overview

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©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/David Evans

our goal:

Ensure more people everywhere are working on increasing mobility from poverty, and provide them with the information and tools they need to succeed.

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 finally, 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. To take just one example, studies show that, even if they have identical resumes, white job applicants receive, on average, 36 percent more callbacks than black applicants and 24 percent more callbacks than Latino applicants.

Mobility from poverty is also decreasing in the United States. Ninety percent of children born in 1940 earned more than their parents did. For children born in the 1980s, though, that figure has dropped to just 50 percent.

The Opportunity

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.

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.

Our strategic vision is to ensure more people everywhere are working on increasing mobility from poverty, and provide them with the information and tools they need to succeed. We believe we can play a catalytic role by investing in data and evidence that close knowledge gaps and help leaders from various sectors work together to achieve even greater impact.

Areas of Focus

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

Closing Data Gaps

Local leaders have told us they need better data on the fundamental factors contributing to poverty in America. We don’t know what characteristics of neighborhoods have the greatest impact on mobility. We don’t know what causes violence to go down in some cities, but not others. The field needs to fill these gaps to diagnose specific barriers to mobility and develop interventions that work.

To that end, we’ve funded work to measure eviction rates for communities across the country. 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 tracks how economic mobility varies 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 that are already moving settle in higher mobility—but not dramatically more expensive—areas.

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 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 their way 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 across different sectors so the best ideas are brought to life; partnerships with other funders to develop new technologies and tools to help service providers; 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 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 make the long-term investment in recruiting, training, and retaining economically insecure workers; 4.) helping workers access benefits and services 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 describes poverty and those experiencing it – and therefore what people who influence policies and programs believe about poverty – is 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 constructive narrative to effect change.

 

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