Delmi Ruiz Hernandez, 4, top, plays outside of an RV where her family lives on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, in Mountain View, Calif. The Ruiz Hernandez was family was left homeless after the landlord in the apartment they rented hiked their rent beyond what they could afford.
Delmi Ruiz Hernandez, 4, top, plays outside of an RV where her family lives in Mountain View, California. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

A who’s-who of poverty experts outline an ambitious blueprint for “changing the narrative” about being poor in America.

Updated: January 29, 2018

As they worked on assembling a new report on American poverty, a consortium of researchers fanned out across the U.S. to talk to people living in pockets of concentrated need—from rural Maine and the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest to major cities like Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Detroit. One of these site visits took the team to a neighborhood in San Jose, California, where Mexican immigrants struggle with tech-boom-fueled housing costs: Think $600 a month for a couch to sleep on, or $1,000 for a rented garage in the shadow of the riches of Silicon Valley.

The researchers asked one woman about the stark inequality gap that defined the area. “What is this ‘Silicon Valley’ you keep talking about?” she responded.

“We need to find ways to highlight that disparity,” says Nisha Patel, executive director of the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty. The partnership formed a year and a half ago to develop new ideas for ways that governments and philanthropy can help the poor. Its 24 members—a kind of supergroup of poverty-focused economists, philanthropic experts, and public- and private-sector thinkers—are backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and run under the auspices of the Urban Institute. Their new report is called “Restoring the American Dream: What Would It Take to Dramatically Increase Mobility from Poverty?” It furthers the idea that too many Americans linger in poverty largely because they are trapped, literally—isolated in low-income communities where only other poor people surround them. And, statistically, few manage to escape.

“Mobility has two different meanings in this context—the ability to move up the economic ladder, and geographic mobility,” says Patel. “What we found is that people need more support than just getting one dollar above the poverty line. Those traditional measures don’t tell us whether people are actually on a path out of poverty.”

What would, the report argues, are “five interlocking strategies”—explored in a series of idea papers—aimed at addressing the root causes of economic disadvantage, from access to good jobs and social support to the very culture of poverty itself. Beginning in February, the partnership will begin releasing detailed place-related proposals. One prominent theme: When it comes to being poor in America, geography is still destiny. Regions of chronic intergenerational poverty, shaped by the structural inequities that are part of the nation’s history, have remained stubbornly resistant to change.

(Urban Institute)

Echoing the findings of Stanford economist and partnership member Raj Chetty, the report emphasizes how much where we are born and grow up shapes our chances for upward mobility. A child growing up in a community with the lowest level of mobility can expect to earn up to 40 percent less during his or her lifetime than one who lives in a high-mobility neighborhood.

As CityLab’s Mimi Kirk wrote in May, an earlier report issued by the partnership last spring found that only 16 percent of children raised in poor areas become economically successful adults. But children relocated away from poverty show markedly better outcomes—and the earlier the better. Children who escape to neighborhoods with better schools, less crime, and more jobs by age 12 outperform siblings who were moved when they were older, and the effect is greater when a child moves at age 6 or younger. “With all the shifts we’re seeing in labor markets, with more people without college degrees facing fewer jobs, getting people to high-opportunity areas becomes even more important,” says Patel, who co-authored the report.

That might be accomplished through neighborhood revitalization or transportation improvements, as well as geographic moves. But it won’t be easy. Mobility rates among low-income and less educated Americans remain stubbornly low, and poverty-reduction platforms that aim to relocate poor families, such as HUD’s Moving to Opportunity, a federal program that relocated low-income families from hollowed-out neighborhoods to more affluent areas (often suburbs) have proved politically unpopular. To better change the trajectories of children, the report recommends housing-voucher programs that prioritize families with young kids, as well as revitalizing neighborhoods and preserving affordable housing.

The partnership also places a premium on a more intangible, if equally challenging task—“changing the narrative around poverty,” Patel says. “We talked about the marriage equality issue, and how quickly public opinion changed. People who were once against the idea came to see the humanity of people who weren’t like them. What’s missing [in the poverty debate] is the notion of shared prosperity.”

One idea from the report to help push this social shift: a “pop culture hub” to help amplify the voices of those who’ve experienced poverty. “Their authentic voices could guide the creation of compelling television that could establish a narrative of poverty in America that has never been seen in mainstream media.” Another proposal involves forging alliances with evangelical Protestant organizations, who may have “differing world views but share a similar desire to dispel the popular myths surrounding poverty and mobility.”  

The partnership is slated to finish its work in May. Between now and then, it will churn out a dozen or more white papers that discuss aspects of poverty discussed in the report, including the need to increase jobs for people who haven’t been to college, bolster the “autonomy” of the poor—in essence, making sure they have a political voice—and strengthen the role they play in improving communities that so many people are stuck in.

One key to building that autonomy: information. There’s plenty of data on poverty in America, Patel says, but precious little of it ends up in the hands of the those who desperately need it. Families trapped in resource-starved neighborhoods could, in a better world, be able to use smartphones to help them better access services, such as affordable day care, if databases were created to make a comprehensive roadmap of the socioeconomic landscape.

“Imagine a user-friendly app for people looking for apartments—one that could also show them data on neighborhoods that are opportunity bargains with affordable housing,” she says. “If our systems were made to communicate better with each other, there’s a lot more we could do to help people make decisions about moving.”

And, she adds, that means both upward and outward.

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