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Roots and Wings: How local governments are investing in people and neighborhoods

The neighborhood a child grows up in profoundly impacts their economic outcomes in adulthood. Zip code level data underscores this point, as does the lived experience of residents, who often feel they must leave their neighborhood to find better opportunities.

Of course, neighborhoods aren’t just zip codes that predict future outcomes (even if they’re accurate at that). Neighborhoods are also where we live. They are family, friends, neighbors, churches, small businesses, restaurants, schools, parks, and more. Yes, there are neighborhoods where children have fewer opportunities to rise out of poverty, but that’s not a lack of potential — it’s potential untapped.

Despite a pervasive narrative in our culture of people “escaping” their neighborhoods, people shouldn’t have to choose between the place they’re from and the places they want to go — instead, the goal should be to improve economic mobility even for residents who want to stay. Local leaders must design policy and channel funding in such a way as to support every neighborhood in a jurisdiction. To borrow language from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the goal is to give residents “wings to fly, roots to come back, and reasons to stay.”

The nine cities in the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility Initiative, led by Results for America, piloted programs to improve economic mobility for residents, and in doing so underscored how support looks different at key milestones in a person’s life:

  • Young adulthood: Racine’s high school equivalency program shows innovative and effective ways to re-engage adult learners — and enhance earning potential over time

Dayton: Driving early learning through personalized text messages

Support for residents, ideally, begins early. Quality early childhood education sets the tone for ongoing educational attainment and workforce success, while also making it more possible for parents, guardians, and caretakers to work.

In Dayton, Black and Hispanic families had disproportionately low preschool attendance rates — but it wasn’t because they weren’t enrolling. Families were signing up for school, but they weren’t always getting there.

Dayton’s community-based partner, Preschool Promise, set out to test whether personalized text messages would help improve attendance. When COVID-19 struck, Preschool Promise pivoted deftly, sending nearly 1,300 tablets, all pre-loaded with educational software, to families in the area. Having shifted to in-home vs on-site learning, the team returned to the initial question: Do personalized text messages, tailored to specific behavior, work better than standardized text messages?

The answer, definitively, was yes. When the team, with the support of the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), adapted text messages to each family’s usage data, they saw an average increase of 95 minutes spent on the software compared to families who received more generic text messages.

“We knew text messages were a viable communication option heading into this work,” says Dr. Richard Stock, Director of the Business Research Group at University of Dayton. “Now we know tailoring those text messages makes them even more effective.”

As an example, instead of a general statement, such as “did you know that 95% of your child’s brain is developed before age 5?” a custom message would begin with an introductory sentence such as, “[child’s name] used ABC Mouse for 60 minutes last week and reached their 45 minute goal!”

Dayton plans to apply the same learnings from the pilot to in-person attendance, using personalized text messages to encourage attendance among families. Dayton has also hired a full-time Attendance and Enrollment Specialist to help ensure all Dayton kids can benefit from quality preschool programs.

Racine: Scaling an exceptional high school equivalency program

Adult learners are a unique group. For adults who have not earned a high-school credential, there’s often a stigma associated with classrooms — they’ve never been a place where these students felt a sense of belonging or success.

“Many students come to us after being unsuccessful in the traditional school setting,” says Vicky Selkowe, Manager of Strategic Initiatives & Community Partnerships at the City of Racine. “They often feel discouraged and lack confidence not only in their academic skills, but in their ability to follow through. Many believe that a better future is simply not an option for them.”

YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin’s (YWCA SEW) 5.09 High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED) program offers adults the opportunity to earn a high school level diploma. The Mayor’s Office at the City of Racine partnered with YWCA SEW to bring this successful program to more local residents. According to data from the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey, a high school diploma boosts earning potential by more than $3,000 annually in Racine County, while also opening doors to a Bachelor’s Degree — another driver of earnings over time (nearly $30,000/year more in Racine County). The program is exceptional for its curriculum, which dives deep on questions students often miss in GED tests; its career training; and the dedication of its staff.

The program is condensed to 20 weeks or less. “These are adults,” says Selkowe. “They have kids. They have jobs. We have to be respectful of their time and make sure they’re getting what they need in an efficient and productive classroom setting.”

The program was selected for further expansion in the WWC Economic Mobility Initiative, and saw an 85% increase in graduates over the course of the 2.5 years, despite COVID-19.

“COVID-19 actually revealed some unique opportunities,” says Selkowe. “Some students found the confidence to enter the classroom only in the virtual space.” In addition, the pervasiveness of all things digital in modern life means learning to use those tools in a classroom setting helps graduates in their personal and professional lives.

Looking forward, the HSED program will continue to expand its reach, both adult learners and students still in high school. The program will integrate even more seamlessly with Racine Unified School District, providing an internal credit recovery for high school students who are off-track on graduation requirements. A new program also turns federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) dollars into scholarships so the program — which was already free — doesn’t come with a big price tag in the form of lost income from work or childcare expenses.

“The City’s partnership with the YWCA SEW’s 5.09 program is about so much more than helping residents access a credential; it is about creating community for those who don’t have support, about convincing those who feel left behind that they are worthy, and about sending a strong message to our residents that the City believes in their futures.” Selkowe says students are surrounded by cheerleaders — instructors, HSED coordinators and peers — who ardently proclaim that they can do it until the students themselves believe that message.

Cincinnati: Bridging employers and employees through inclusive talent development

In Cincinnati, as in many US cities, poverty is not attributable to unemployment alone. Cincinnati has an unemployment rate of only 4–5%, but a poverty rate of 26%. This suggests that people are finding jobs — but those jobs do not enable them to live above the poverty line.

The Workforce Innovation Center at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber is a talent consulting practice that works with employers to find solutions that make recruitment, retention, and talent development more inclusive, equitable, and diverse. This benefits both the business and its employees. The Center’s consultative approach, built in collaboration with the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), meets employers where they are, helping them create a path forward to solve their talent issues while also supporting their employees. In 2021, the Center served 15 client companies with a collective employee count of more than 2600.

As part of its consulting practice, the Center deployed its employee survey and other services across the initial 15 companies, gathering insights from 661 employees ranging from staff/frontline workers to middle and general managers, right up to the executive suite. Employee voices added nuance and texture to quantitative findings.

Throughout the Center’s engagement with employers, the Center recommended 172 strategic, inclusive practices to the 15 pilot companies including:

The findings from the Center’s services — including data from the employee survey — along with the practice recommendations have led employers to take significant action: 12 employers are implementing 73 inclusive practices including raising wages, removing unnecessary employment credentials, creating more promotion opportunities, recruiting new talent from more diverse sources, and increasing the cultural competence of their leadership.

The Center has also made 264 recommendations for partnerships with nonprofit and government organizations that can help employers support their workers with financial counseling, domestic violence resources, eviction prevention, and legal support. The Center’s work demonstrates that workforce development goes beyond simply helping people get a job to helping employers provide opportunities for engagement and growth in that job over time. Adopting inclusive practices is an important step on the path to creating strong, equitable workplaces where both employees and employers can become more prosperous.

“Because of COVID-19, changes in the labor market, supply chain, and economy as a whole have presented a variety of challenges to employers,” says Audrey Treasure, Executive Director of the Workforce Innovation Center. “Our work has demonstrated leaders’ willingness to adapt their internal practices to support the continued success of their company and the people who work for them. As a result, employees have new training and advancement opportunities within their organizations, and employers are able to better retain their teams. We believe that as we work with more employers, we’ll find even more opportunities to create these win-win scenarios, which make the practice of inclusive capitalism more real for all.”

Unlocking potential

Zip code level data lays bare what many local leaders, CBOs, and residents already know: The physical place a child is born into — a circumstance over which they have zero control — predicts with disturbing accuracy their outcomes in adulthood.

But rather than perpetuating a world where kids have to “escape” from their neighborhood to find meaningful opportunities, we can instead work to create opportunities in every zip code. This means supporting people from birth to school to career development and beyond, such that the choice to stay or go is based on personal preference and not economic necessity. By providing a lifetime of support to every neighborhood’s greatest asset — its people — we can help strengthen both roots and wings, and finally untap the potential of America’s next great neighborhoods.

For more proven strategies to improve economic mobility for residents, visit our Economic Mobility Catalog.

Jen Tolentino is a Director of Local Practice at Results for America

Sophie Bergmann is a Manager at Results for America