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Gates Foundation Seeks (and Funds) New Strategies to Address Economic Mobility

Fifty million Americans are living in poverty or near it. A new grant program will help nonprofits address inequities and promote upward mobility.

Tampa resident Emma Antunez picks items from a food pantry at Temple Terrace Elementary School.
Ivy Ceballo/TNS
In Brief:
  • Barriers to economic stability include factors such as race, gender and education.

  •  The Gates Foundation is partnering with seven organizations to encourage upward mobility through a variety of approaches.

  •  The three main approaches include short-term stability, local government and small- and medium-business assistance, and effective partnerships between organizations.

  • It's difficult for many Americans to improve their economic prospects.

    Fifty million Americans earn at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (which is $29,160 for an individual and $60,000 for a family of four). Many suffer from malnutrition and face challenges exiting poverty.

    The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — the nation's largest private foundation — has long devoted resources to addressing poverty. Last year, the foundation pledged to spend $460 million improving economic mobility. Now, the foundation has announced that $100 million of that sum will be devoted to a set of new partnerships and investments. The goal is to improve the lives of people who are primarily in marginalized parts of the population, including minimum-wage workers and those blocked by the lack of a four-year degree.

    “Our focus population is disproportionately Black, Latino, Indigenous and other people of color," says Ryan Rippel, director of U.S. economic opportunity and mobility at the Gates Foundation. "About half of our focus population is concentrated in very large metro areas and 40 percent of them live in the South. Seventeen percent live outside of metro areas, including in rural areas. ”

    Three Main Pathways

    The foundation seeks to facilitate pathways out of poverty through collaboration with various nonprofits across the country, pursuing three major approaches.

    First, there is a focus on individuals. The Families and Workers Fund will seek to strengthen access to benefits such as unemployment and food stamps. Another nonprofit known as Opportunity@Work will work to improve hiring practices and make them more inclusive.

    “We know Black and Hispanic households continue to endure lower incomes, less wealth, higher payment burdens and greater economic uncertainty than their white counterparts," Rippel says. "And while we know that education is key to creating opportunities to climb the economic ladder, many in our focus population are not in school and do not have a pathway back to a bachelor's degree.”

    Secondly, there is a strategy to encourage both local governments and small and medium-sized businesses to address economic mobility and stability in their communities. The plan calls for the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington, to develop a framework to help local governments find ways to improve economic mobility and tackle racial equity. Other groups will help employers improve job quality for their workers.

    “Local governments want to invest in the most effective solutions,” says Lisa Morrison Butler, executive vice president for Results for America, another grantee. “They need tools and resources like the Economic Mobility Catalog to help them identify and implement evidence-based solutions that will work in their communities.”

    The third part of the strategy will be an effort to increase coordination among organizations that work to address poverty.

    Poverty is both a perennial problem and a present crisis, one that has wide ramifications for all aspects of how millions of Americans live. The Gates Foundation hopes that addressing the problem across multiple fronts can help create a brighter future for many of them.

    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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