Bill and Melinda Gates during their trip to Atlanta, Georgia in October 2017. Photo by: Gates Foundation

SAN FRANCISCO — On Thursday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will formally launch its work on mobility from poverty in the United States. The announcement is an answer to the highly anticipated question of whether the largest foundation in the world will fight poverty at home as well as abroad.

The Gates Foundation is committing $158 million over four years to develop new strategies, improve coordination, and mobilize additional resources.

The foundation’s chief executive officer Sue Desmond-Hellmann will make the announcement at the culminating event of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, an initiative of the Urban Institute launched with funding from the Gates Foundation, in southeast Washington, D.C.

“We’re known for our work in education. We continue to believe strongly that education is one of the most effective bridges to opportunity in the United States. So we’re continuing with the foundation’s investments in education,” Desmond-Hellmann said on a call with reporters ahead of the announcement. “But during a decade of working in U.S. education, we keep bumping into the barrier of persistent poverty.”

The Gates Foundation spends $4 billion a year internationally. While nearly all of the $500 million that goes in to U.S. programs focuses on education, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line increased from 12.7 to 14.2 percent between 2010 and 2016, and wealth inequality is on the rise in the U.S. Roughly 43 percent of children who are born into the bottom income quintile in America will still be there as adults.

While education will remain the Gates Foundation’s primary focus in the U.S, this move acknowledges that it is not the only intervention needed. Given the scope, along with the cost and complexity of solving poverty, the Gates Foundation wants to play two catalytic roles: Investing in public goods and creating an enabling environment for stakeholders, Desmond-Hellmann said.

This new strategy on mobility from poverty will sit under Allan Golston, president of the United States program. There is a focus on educational opportunity and student achievement but the strategy expands beyond education. The goal is to provide groups already working on economic mobility across the U.S. with the information and tools they need to be more effective.

The Gates Foundation has outlined five areas it plans to focus on: Closing data gaps; empowering local actors; improving coordination and leverage; analyzing the new economy; and increasing public understanding.

The approach

The US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty convened 24 experts, who spent two years identifying solutions to boost upward mobility in America. They came up with five mutually reinforcing strategies to move Americans out of poverty: Changing the narrative around poverty; creating access to jobs; ensuring that zip code is not destiny; providing support that empowers; and transforming data systems to increase accountability and transparency.

“As the first principle of our definition [of mobility from poverty], we absolutely have economic success. Income and assets and wage gains are fundamental. But they’re not enough,” said Nisha Patel, executive director of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty.

“A second and equally important principle that we’ve put forward is this notion of power and autonomy. Which is really about having a sense of agency over one’s life, as well as a say, in the trajectory of what happens in your community.

“And the third principle that we put forward as part of this definition is about being valued in community.”

Ryan Rippel, the Gates Foundation’s strategy adviser for U.S. poverty and economic mobility initiatives, said the work so far has been to fill data gaps. He mentioned recent work on racism and inequality by Raj Chetty, a professor of economics at Stanford University and one of the 24 members of the partnership, as one example of related work the Gates Foundation has supported so far.

The foundation still needs to figure out where its money will go across its five focus areas, Rippel said, he does not expect it to select a set of places, but rather help actors across the U.S. access new tools, data and insights.

“There are a lot of promising developments that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, but the field is quite fragmented and knowledge lives in pockets in places and it’s hard for a practitioner — a mayor, a county executive, a nonprofit leader in a community — to access all of those things that are going on — and resources then to pursue them,” he said.

“And so our strategy then is about trying to link some of those efforts and ensure people working on the frontlines and individuals experiencing poverty have access to the best tools to move forward.”

Asking the tough questions

U.S.-based foundations and NGOs working in global health and international development increasingly ask whether they might do more domestically to address some of the same problems they are working to solve internationally.

In this year’s annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the Gates Foundation, focused on the 10 toughest questions they get asked, and number one was: “Why don’t you give more in the United States?” While the billionaire couple initially saw global health as one area where their resources could have dramatic impact, they shared their recent experiences traveling to the South — including Atlanta, Georgia — which made them think about ways beyond education to help people in the U.S. get out of poverty.

“The issues of economic mobility in America are deeply intertwined: Education, employment, race, housing, mental health, incarceration, substance abuse. We haven’t decided how what we’ve been learning might affect our giving, but it has certainly had an effect on us. We will share more about our approach when we have settled on a strategy,” they wrote at the time.

When Devex asked Desmond-Hellmann what connections she sees between domestic and international work to end poverty — the first of 17 Sustainable Development Goals that the world is working to achieve by 2030, the Gates Foundation CEO emphasized the role of data.

“Data drives deeper understanding. Data drives change. Data drives accountability,” she said.  

Data in and of itself does not solve problems, she acknowledged, but without data, it is near impossible to make progress on such complex problems.

“What I’m starting to see emerge — from this marriage of practitioners and academicians, of data scientists and people on the front lines — might be best evidenced by some of the things we’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest,” she continued.

In its work on homelessness in King County, Washington, the Gates Foundation heard that practitioners need better data in order to generate, test and share potential solutions to the problem.

Opportunities for shared learning begin by asking, “where are the communities that have more mobility?” Desmond-Hellmann said. That means, data is key. Whether the task is to address poverty in the U.S. or transform systems in education, health, or agriculture.

Desmond-Hellmann also referenced Ethiopia — how its health sector transformation plan, which shifted from a strategy framed around disease areas driven by NGOs to a more integrated and government-led approach — could serve as a model for this type of work in the U.S.

“I think it’s a flip on its head, from a classic vertical model in global health to a very horizontally driven model of: What does this community need to succeed?” she said. “I think, in many ways, that’s what we’re learning with the mobility strategy.”

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.