At its inception, the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty was given the challenge to think creatively in answering the question What would it take to substantially increase mobility from poverty? We are certainly not the first group to tackle poverty in the United States. But unlike commissions that have come before, we did not limit ourselves to a traditional, narrow definition of poverty. For example, we did not set a lone, quantifiable goal: to cut poverty in half by a certain date. We felt that simply focusing on the official poverty measure, or even the supplemental poverty measure, would be far too constraining and would squelch creativity. If we focused narrowly on income, all we would have to do is develop ideas to help an individual or a family move $1 above the poverty level, and it would appear that our work was done, when in fact these individuals and families would likely continue to struggle.
None of us wants to merely subsist. We all want to thrive, to have access to financial, human, and social capital to grow and develop in our work, family, and community roles. So a modest income threshold is not enough. To truly forge a path to better opportunity for those of us living in poverty, we needed to think much more broadly and dynamically.
The Partnership’s insights about mobility from poverty began to emerge at our very first meeting in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn in May 2016 as we began to discuss the myriad ways we might measure success—both in terms of what the country as a whole would like if the ideas the Partnership developed were successful and how what individual people experience would change if the ideas were successful. A summary of those measures is below.
What the country would look like:
- We have a new narrative about poverty that is focused on “all of us” and not “us vs. them.”
- We have a new social compact committed to everyone’s success.
- There is no longer stigma associated with being a member of a particular racial group.
- We have a society committed to helping children remain on track.
- Programs are judged by whether they create inclusion or exclusion.
- Every neighborhood is a launch pad.
- Systems adapt to economic changes.
- Institutions do not disadvantage those with limited resources.
- There is less segregation by race and class.
What people would experience:
- People in poverty have access to power.
- More people have a sense of belonging to the whole.
- Children have equal opportunity for upward mobility independent of place and race.
- Chances are greater that a child born in the bottom income quintile ends up in the top quintile as an adult.
- More people can build assets, so they have a stake in the game.
- The next generation is more optimistic about its future than the previous one.
- Over the next decade, adults are doing better (steady work, not in poverty) and children are on a path to success (or at least doing better than their parents).
During that initial discussion, one of our Partnership members, john powell, said something profound that immediately resonated with many in our group and has continued to resonate in the communities we have learned from around the country—from the Mississippi Delta to Indian Country to Silicon Valley. john said, “Poverty is not just about a lack of money. It’s about a lack of power.” We began to riff on this, and our thinking began to coalesce around another dimension of mobility: being valued in community. Arthur Brooks and Kathy Edin have referred to this concept as dignity; john powell talks about it as belonging. Still others describe it as social inclusion or social capital.
So the definition of mobility from poverty that we have decided to put forth includes these three core principles:
- Economic success
- Power and autonomy
- Being valued in community
Economic success is foundational and entails many of the traditional measures of poverty, including income and assets. However, it is not enough. Equally important are power and autonomy, which speak to individual agency, having a sense of control and a say in the trajectory of one’s life and one’s community. And being valued in community speaks to dignity, belonging, social capital, and social inclusion.
The Partnership’s ideas are beginning to come together within a framework of five pillars:
- Narrative: We need to change the narrative about how we talk about poverty and the way we treat people in poverty. Poverty in the United States is highly stigmatizing and isolating. We need a shift toward a new narrative that recognizes the reality that as a nation, we’re all in this together.
- Jobs: Growing numbers of jobs do not offer the wages, benefits, protections, and security to keep families out of poverty, let alone provide upward mobility. Everyone who is willing to work hard ought to have a chance to get a good job. We must not only train people for better jobs and try to strengthen our economy, but we must also transform so-called “bad” jobs into good ones.
- People: Though well-intended, many programs and policies that have the goal of moving people out of poverty address only one aspect of what is a complex problem with one-size-fits-all solutions. Programs and policies should empower people, support their aspirations and capacity, and work across domains.
- Place: Where we are born and grow up plays a significant role in our chances of upward mobility. Zip code should no longer be destiny. Everyone deserves the opportunity to thrive within a safe and caring community. We must transform communities and the institutions that serve them, remove the barriers that limit where people can live and learn, and encourage more economically diverse neighborhoods.
- Data: Billions of public and private resources are deployed to address poverty annually, but the results of those investments are not always clear. Programs collect vast amounts of data that could be used to help people along pathways to opportunity and to hold programs accountable for outcomes. But those data are rarely linked and shared in ways that both protect privacy and offer invaluable insights into solutions. We must transform data systems to increase accountability and transparency.
Ideally, the design of each of our ideas across these five pillars will embody economic success, power and autonomy, and being valued in community. And, importantly, we will encourage the field of potential investors and implementers to measure success and outcomes across all three dimensions.
What are your thoughts about our emerging framework of ideas and definition of mobility? I welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.