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What Does Data-Driven Economic Mobility Look Like?

With support from some of the biggest philanthropies in the local government space, several cities across the country are bolstering their data-driven decision-making in the service of new economic mobility work.

by / July 3, 2019
Shutterstock/Carsten Reisinger

A group of major philanthropic organizations recently announced support for 10 local government projects aimed at boosting economic mobility in American communities. As part of this effort, the participating cities are currently being coached in how to use data to better serve their work.

This effort is a joint collaboration between Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Ballmer Group, which together have invested $12 million in the work. Last month, organizers announced that the participating cities will be Albuquerque, N.M.; Cincinnati; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; Lansing, Mich.; New Orleans; Newark, N.J.; Racine, Wisc.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Tulsa, Okla.

Now, the work has begun. 

The projects being conducted by the cities are intricate and varied, being, for obvious reasons, highly specific to the jurisdictions involved. They range from connecting low-income workers with job readiness services to reducing the eviction rates of long-term residents to ensure they benefit from community-wide wealth increases. 

One thing that remains the same throughout, however, is a shared commitment to using data in all phases of the projects. Data is being used, for example, to identify what is preventing economic opportunities during the concept phases of these projects. It is next being used to test the viability of strategies to solve the problems, and it will also eventually be used to demonstrate to other communities what worked and why. 

Part of the selection criteria for the participating cities was also whether they demonstrated a willingness to use data and evidence-driven decision-making.

Karen Pennington is the managing director of Tulsa Community WorkAdvance, a nonprofit group that partners with that city and is helping to lead the work there. Tulsa’s project involves helping young people who are not currently working or going to school to get the education and training needed to change that, eventually getting good jobs. 

There are many industries in Tulsa — oil, gas, aerospace, manufacturing, health care, accounting and IT — where businesses are experiencing a shortage of qualified candidates, Pennington said. The work there involves helping local young people get the skills and training they need to fill those jobs, thereby helping both employers and individuals, ultimately bolstering the local economy.

Data is useful in this effort, Pennington said, because it helps give organizers an idea and understanding of the gaps in serving the young population. Work was already underway in this regard, but Pennington described the new support from the companies as a turbo boost, one that begins with access to the experts the groups are providing. 

Tulsa, like the other nine participating cities, is working with a team of advisors from Results for America and the Behavioral Insights Team, which are both partners in Bloomberg Philanthropies' broader data-driven support program, What Works Cities. Other experts helping in the work are from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Government Excellence, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab and the Sunlight Foundation.

“This is a collaborative effort with the best of the best,” Pennington said, “and that motivates us as a city and as a program.” 

Brittany Ortiz is the deputy director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion for Albuquerque, another participating city. Her jurisdiction is working to improve residents’ financial health by giving them increased access to safe and affordable short-term credit options. The idea is to ensure that low-income citizens don’t need to use payday loans. 

Ortiz said their project aims to get young people acclimated to using traditional financial institutions such as banks. Use of often-predatory payday lending in Albuquerque is in many cases generational, making it a firmly entrenched part of the culture. Data has shown that the city is eighth in the country for the percentage of its population that simply don’t use banks. The project wants to change that. 

Ortiz said with help from the philanthropic effort, Albuquerque is using data to build the project by pinpointing which neighborhoods are most likely to have residents who are unbanked. There is also growing excitement in the city for using data to evaluate whether efforts to initiate culture change there are successful. 

And that’s a big part of the idea behind the project — that cities will take what they learn from this economic mobility work and continue to apply it elsewhere, better serving their residents.

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Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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