Are you a member of local government who wants to increase upward mobility in your community? If so, this guide can help you better understand impediments to upward mobility and build a cross-sector team that can plan, advocate for, and implement a set of systems changes focused on bringing all members of your community out of poverty and creating more equitable results.
Boosting upward mobility and narrowing racial and ethnic inequities in our communities are some of the foremost challenges of our time. Stagnating rates of economic mobility in the US in recent decades have cast doubt on the promise that talent and hard work lead to advancement. Research shows that the poorest adults are unlikely to rise to the middle of the income distribution, much less to the top (Acs and Zimmerman 2008; Bradbury 2016). And children growing up in families living in poverty are far more likely than other children to experience poverty as adults (Acs, Elliott, and Kalish 2016; Ratcliffe and McKernan 2010; Wagmiller and Adelman 2009).
Everyone deserves the chance to improve their lives: to move up and out of poverty, be valued and feel they belong, and have the power and autonomy to shape the decisions that affect their future. But people striving to achieve upward mobility face a web of interconnected barriers that often impede or undermine their best efforts. For most people experiencing poverty in the US today, opportunities to achieve greater economic success, power, autonomy, and dignity are blocked by long-standing structural barriers, not by a failure of individual effort. Poverty, precarity, and inequality are not inevitable consequences of market economies nor are they substantially the result of individual deficits or behaviors by the people experiencing these conditions. Instead, these outcomes are largely caused by public policies and institutional practices that can be changed.
Centuries of discriminatory policies and practices against people of color have produced persistent racial disparities in outcomes. For example, slavery, government-sanctioned occupational segregation of workers of color, Jim Crow laws, and the exclusion of people of color from New Deal programs and union membership have disproportionately concentrated people of color in low-wage occupations (Spievack et al. 2020). The practice of redlining—denying mortgage loans to people in certain neighborhoods based on the race, ethnicity, and immigration status of its residents—as well as the construction of segregated public housing, unfair zoning laws, and the subsidization of white-only suburbs by the government have created stark and persistent racial disparities in homeownership, wealth, and school funding (Deich, Fedorowicz, and Turner 2022; Rothstein 2017; Spievack et al. 2020) and have isolated people of color into neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. And disproportionate policing of communities of color and harsh sentencing laws have led to mass incarceration of people of color—particularly Black and Latinx people—through the criminal legal system, which has facilitated continued repression rather than rehabilitation (National Research Council 2014).
Policies and programs aimed at helping people navigate existing systems and surmount structural barriers provide critical benefits to some individuals and families but leave barriers in place for many, therefore failing to achieve adequate population-level gains or reductions in racial inequities. Current programs help too few of those in need, provide support in too few of the dimensions where support is needed, offer benefits at levels that are too low to allow most people to achieve enduring economic mobility, and fail to target the root causes of inequities in our communities. Because barriers to mobility are upheld by our current systems and structures, removing those barriers will require both systems change and an equitable approach to support that gets it to those most in need.
Taking a systems-change approach means looking at how systemic failures intersect. For example, an issue such as low workforce participation may stem from a combination of low education rates, poor transit access, unreliable child care options, low wages, and workplace discrimination. And many of these systemic failures were caused and are perpetuated by racist beliefs, norms, policies, and practices that have produced deep and persistent racial inequities in our communities.
Solving such multifaceted problems requires not only addressing the root causes of failures within a particular system but also working across systems to address intersecting and compounding issues. Increasing workforce participation, for example, may call for a transportation department to both expand public transit access along its existing lines and collaborate with a housing department to align new residential developments with these transit options. In turn, the housing department might collaborate with child care providers to determine where to locate new day care centers.
Clearly, bringing about systemic change to boost upward mobility is no simple task, and large-scale change cannot be made by government alone. But counties and cities have powerful data, policy levers, and capacity that can catalyze this change. You can bring this resource to your community to kick off the development of a local Mobility Action Plan (MAP) in collaboration with local nonprofits, community-based organizations, philanthropy, research organizations, the private sector, and residents.
Who Is This Guide For?
We developed this guide with you—the user—in mind. It provides practical advice for people driven to boost mobility from poverty and asking, “Where do I start?” More specifically, this guide is intended for city and county government leaders who can plan, advocate for, and implement a set of policy and program changes—informed by the Mobility Metrics (explained in the next section)—that are focused on boosting mobility from poverty.
How Can You Use This Guide?
This guide will lead you through a planning process that involves building a cross-sector team, gathering and analyzing data, conducting community and stakeholder engagement, and identifying needed systems changes so that you can create a MAP, which will set forth strategic actions to boost mobility from poverty and advance equity in your community. You can see sample MAPs on the Boosting Upward Mobility website at https://upward-mobility.urban.org/. The MAP and its planning process are rooted in the Urban Institute’s Framework for Boosting Mobility and Advancing Equity as well as the Mobility Metrics, a set of 26 data points that highlight conditions related to poverty, mobility, and equity in a given community.
Each section of this guide is a step in the Mobility Action Planning process: The Mobility Action Planning process is rooted in the Urban Institute’s experience helping communities boost mobility from poverty and advance racial equity.
In Step 1, you’ll learn about our Framework for Boosting Mobility and Advancing Equity, which includes our three-part definition of mobility from poverty, the key pillars and predictors of upward mobility, the Mobility Metrics, our planning principles, and the types of actors to engage in this work.
Step 2 will introduce the Mobility Metrics in greater detail and show you how to use them to gather insights about mobility in your community. Surfacing preliminary insights about mobility in your community is a key step toward understanding how to begin the Mobility Action Planning process.
Step 3 will guide you to assess your municipality’s readiness to act and help you to identify capacities and readiness conditions to build up within your municipality. Creating sustainable systems change within your municipality and among partner organizations requires a certain level of capacity and commitment.
In Step 4, we will walk you through how to build your Mobility Coalition. Removing systemic barriers demands a holistic approach that addresses multiple levers for change through a coordinated strategy with stakeholders from many different policy domains and sectors.
Step 5 will provide you with methods for gathering data to supplement the Mobility Metrics that can get the Mobility Coalition on the same page about what the key issues are in your community. Once your Mobility Coalition is assembled, it’s important to develop an initial understanding of local mobility conditions as a group.
In Step 6, we will share best practices for deepening the coalition’s analysis and engaging with the community at every phase of this work. Building on the Mobility Coalition’s initial understanding of mobility issues will require engaging with more stakeholders and community members and gathering and analyzing qualitative data.
Step 7 will guide you in selecting your strategic actions. Identifying a set of comprehensive strategies that consider the full range of a community’s needs and assets requires a clear theory of change and logic model that demonstrate how and why the selected strategies will lead to the change your municipality hopes to see.
In Step 8, we will train you in how to measure progress and consider how to sustain momentum once the MAP is released. Tracking change over time requires a portfolio of measurement tools that includes different but interconnected measures and an understanding of how to track progress toward eliminating disparities.
In Step 9, we’ll provide you with considerations around finalizing and releasing your MAP. Once you've gone through all the above steps, you’ll need to consider the format for your final MAP as well as a plan for releasing it.
Step 10 provides some initial steps the Mobility Coalition can take to increase the sustainability of your MAP. Finally, once your MAP is released, your Mobility Coalition will need to maintain momentum around implementation.
Throughout the guide, we will bold key elements of the upward mobility framework and use the following symbols to highlight examples, areas of caution, and steps where the community should be engaged:
We will also include web links throughout the guide to share targeted resources and examples from cities and counties across the country.
How Did We Develop This Guide?
The guide is built on a foundation of research from the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, hosted by the Urban Institute with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Partnership, which completed its work in spring 2018, gathered insights from research, practice, and people who have experienced poverty about what it would take to dramatically increase mobility from poverty in the US.
To validate and operationalize our framework for Boosting Mobility and Advancing Equity, Urban selected eight inaugural counties in 2021 to form the Upward Mobility Cohort:
With Urban’s technical assistance, the counties have assessed critical barriers to mobility and identified necessary areas for systems change. These insights informed each county’s MAP. We have gathered lessons learned from the technical assistance process to inform the creation of this guide.
Note: This report was corrected on December 15, 2022. On pages 3 and 4, we moved some text in each step to appear with its proper step (i.e., some text that previously appeared with Step 1 actually applied to Step 2, some text in Step 2 actually applied to Step 3, and so forth). We also corrected the description of figure 16, on page 123, to include the correct colors.