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Attend the OpportUNITY Summit

United Way’s inaugural OpportUNITY Summit will be held on Friday, April 22, 2022 at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. You can register to attend the event here. 

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Understanding poverty

Poverty and economic justice are complex issues. Understanding how generational poverty in America impacts our future is the first step toward eliminating it.

Opportunity Insights is a Harvard-University-based nonprofit using “big data” to research economic opportunity in the US. Its mission is to use that research to identify and remove barriers to economic success. Their website provides extensive research on national trends, education, how neighborhoods shape the future, and the impact of racial disparities.

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The Citizen Recommends: Opportunity Summit

Harvard economist Raj Chetty will delve into what Philly needs to alleviate poverty at a United Way event this week. Here, he talks with the nonprofit’s CEO Bill Golderer about the key to financial opportunity

The Citizen Recommends: Opportunity Summit

Harvard economist Raj Chetty will delve into what Philly needs to alleviate poverty at a United Way event this week. Here, he talks with the nonprofit’s CEO Bill Golderer about the key to financial opportunity

Over the years, the Reverend Bill Golderer has launched several social enterprises in Philadelphia, including homeless services organization Broad Street Ministry—something, Golderer says, for which people often congratulate him. But Golderer, now CEO and president of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, has a more measured view of his accomplishments.

“I know a lot of people,” Golderer says. “Building a nonprofit is not that hard when you can easily put your hand on financial management and HR expertise and all the other stuff you need.”

The key, in other words, is the secret sauce that any successful American shares: Social capital. That might be parents or other family, a mentor or a teacher, a loan officer or a coach, a friend who is a financial manager or hiring expert—anyone connected to the levers of opportunity that can ease a journey to financial success.

And it is, as Harvard economist Raj Chetty has studied over and over, the extra something that people living in poverty, including 25 percent of Philadelphians, often lack.

“The first lesson is that just getting jobs to your city—getting Amazon to locate its headquarters there—is not itself a solution. You need to create pathways for local residents to get those higher-paying jobs that are being offered there,” says Chetty.

“It’s incredibly intuitive,” says Chetty, the MacArthur Award-winning director of Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights. “Most people can point to people who have helped them at various points in their lives. That seems to be the case in the higher end of the market; there are many people who want to help you, often for a significant fee. That’s not true at the lower end of the market.”

The Citizen first explored the work of Opportunity Insights at our 2020 Ideas We Should Steal Festival, when Chetty’s colleague John Friedman spoke with Wes Moore, at the time CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, and Citizen Co-founder Larry Platt. You can watch that conversation here.

Now Chetty has spent several weeks studying poverty in Philadelphia, with a look at the opportunities to make change in this city. This week, he’ll present his findings in a conversation with United Way’s Chief Learning Officer Andrea Anderson, as part of the organization’s 100th-anniversary celebration.

In anticipation of that event, I spoke to Chetty and Golderer about what it would take to create real opportunity that will alleviate poverty now and for future generations. This is an edited version of the conversation.

Raj, you have been called “economist famous” for the work you have done on inequality, particularly on a hyperlocal level. What can you tell us about wealth disparity in Philadelphia?

RC: What you see in Philadelphia, and cities like Philadelphia that in some ways are economically quite prosperous, is there’s a subset of people doing well. It reminds me of Charlotte—another city that is booming, in the southeast. But if you look at measures of upward mobility, like in Charlotte, despite the fact that there is job growth and wage growth, and driving around it seems to be doing well, there are vast swaths of the city—where lower income and African Amerians live in particular—where you see very poor outcomes despite the economic growth happening around them.

So the first lesson is that just getting jobs to your city—getting Amazon to locate its headquarters there—is not itself a solution. You need to create pathways for local residents to get those higher paying jobs that are being offered there. There’s more that can be done in Philadelphia to bring some of those disadvantaged groups into the net.

Bill, does this ring true to you from what you’ve looked at in Philadelphia?

BG: I will tell you that there’s something about the discourse in Philadelphia that is kind of all or nothing—if we can’t do everything we shouldn’t do anything, so we wind up doing nothing. It is an all or nothing loop.

As much as I can read and learn or understand from people like Raj about what we leave on the table and what we could be doing that we’re not doing, I want to see if we could advocate or align interests around those things. We’ve gotten very good in the last 18 months about calling people out or calling things out. I want to call out the fatalism on the one hand, and the “if we don’t bring the revolution right away we have failed” on the other hand.

I don’t think in those terms—some would call that incrementalism; I would call it pragmatism.

I think of it as a spiritual crisis: It’s not a city I want to live in; it’s not for the faint of heart.

I can bear almost any adversity, but I want to be locking arms with others who want to go on a quest to make it different or better by more than just what our board member and friend Mike Kerlin calls “admiring the problem in all kinds of different ways.” If people’s destinies and economic mobility were tied to all kinds of different ways of “admiring the problem,” we wouldn’t be the poorest large city right now.

We’d be good.

BG: We’d be crushing it.

Raj, I want to ask you about things that have worked. The needle on poverty in Philadelphia has almost not moved for decades. Clearly this is a generational issue we have to solve; it’s also the issue of people today. What are the things that have worked in your research and how do we think about long term and short term solutions?

RC: At a broader level, the types of things I’m seeing strong data for are things that have social capital effect above and beyond providing people resources—creating connections to folks who can help people find a job, or find a better neighborhood where their kids can attend a better school, change people’s aspirations, the career pathways they’re thinking about.

There’s a tendency to fall into two camps: One camp is that we need to get people more resources in terms of a better safety net, getting children more access to better education, for example. That’s incredibly valuable.

There’s another camp that focuses on changing social norms, and think about culture and family values. The issue there is, does government have a role to play on those fronts, and how do you influence the kinds of career choices kids make? That’s an individual choice, nothing you can do anything about.

My sense is there’s an intersection between these two things, and the programs where we’re seeing significant impact fall into that intersection.

Let me give you a few concrete examples. In terms of the short-term: There’s a new generation of workforce training programs called sectoral job training, things like YearUp, which are programs geared towards helping kids who have not gone the traditional college route, connecting them to employers, providing them with the requisite skills that, like, a Bank of America or a tech firm is looking to hire for, and then directly providing them with those skills, along with mentorship, and social support they need to get that job.

In randomized trials we’re finding that those sorts of programs increase people’s earnings by 35 or 40 percent for the subsequent many many years, so persistent gains.

An earlier generation of these programs that the government conducted on a broad scale across many cities, have had many, many evaluations, and largely disappointing results. We need to do more work to pin down precisely what’s different, but my view is one key difference: We’re going to build that network, mentor you, provide much more than just job training.

Another example is helping people find housing in high-income neighborhoods. A lot of low-income families move every year. Many of these families apply for and some receive housing vouchers from the city. The vast majority still stay in high-poverty, low-opportunity neighborhoods where we don’t expect their children to break the cycle of poverty in their generation.

In a program in Seattle, we added a little bit of social support to the process—a counselor who helps you locate a unit in the right neighborhood for you, someone to help you talk to landlords, deal with issues landlords are bringing up, has an enormous effect of amplifying the impact of those kinds of programs. This is a theme that has not gotten a lot of attention.

Longer-term, we’re seeing an improvement in the quality of children’s lives can have quite profound long-term effects.

So when you looked at housing, it wasn’t just enough to tell people about high-opportunity neighborhoods; they needed guides.

RC: Yes, that’s exactly what we tested with a randomized trial. Let’s say you just gave people money and gave them information about high opportunity places we think your kids would do well. That doesn’t work. What works is coupling that with support in actually navigating that.

Bill, how does this relate to what you are hoping to do here in Philadelphia?

BG: I can’t wait to read more on the social capital issue. If you talk to people who have the opportunity to opt out of caring about this issue and ask them to take an inventory of what made them successful, the unnamed ingredient is social capital. That’s actually what it is.

There are two sides to the work we’re doing: The first leg of the stool is barrier elimination. This addresses something that is on a devastating scale but very personal. Let’s say you want to work with Bill Golderer at United Way—why you would want to do that, I don’t know—but let’s say you did. Our HR is going to pick up anything that is uncleared criminal justice interaction. It will happen.

McKinsey did a pro bono survey for us to understand the number of nonviolent criminal justice interfaces that Philadelphians have that haven’t been cleared yet. I had heard anecdotes, from every corner of Philadelphia, that this is a big number, but no one knows the scale of the problem—that’s part of Philadelphia’s problem—so we asked McKinsey to dig into this.

Roxanne, the number is fully a third of Philadelphians. What are we even doing here? That should be on the front page of The Inquirer.

The causal and correlative relationship between that and impoverishment—these folks do not live in 19103—makes it impossible to drive any other conclusion.

We are proposing the largest of its kind 50-week record clearing initiative, in every zip code in Philadelphia that gets people engaged with not just a layer of the professional services—Community Legal Services, Defenders Association, technical assistance—but trusted groups that have deep reach into these communities so there’s that element of social capital. Getting one of these things cleared is very difficult—there are 14 steps along the way. You got to have a grandma telling you “I love you, you got to do this.” It’s encouragement, correction, protection, guidance, support …

Second, and this is not new, is the work JP Morgan underwrote for the Built By Philly initiative. If you want to start a business In Detroit, in four years of focusing on entrepreneurship in impoverished communities,19,000 living wage jobs were created. There is no workforce development program that parallels the industry of individuals who want to make something. But the ecosystem of creating something out of nothing has to be stronger. Capital, yes—if everyone you know is poor, you will need capital, too. But it also requires a concerted building of an ecosystem, where the daring and doing entrepreneur can not just access the programs but have a human thread whereby they can go on that journey.

“Right now we don’t have healthy dynamics between business and the private sector; there’s not a lot of trust between wealthy individuals and community activists. It really is going to take a renewed virtuous alignment between those four corners of the city,” says Golderer.

Raj, the work you’ve studied centers around working with individuals, person by person by person. That’s not something you can accomplish by just passing a federal or even local law. That’s super hard.

Raj: That’s connected to what Bill says about just admiring the problem versus taking action. Groups like United Way and other nonprofits operate at the retail level; they don’t just mail checks to people but work with them on the ground to change outcomes. We need a different sort of model for how you’re going to change things from the ground up at the community level, instead of just at the federal level—like, we’re going to have a tax credit and that’s it. That can be a useful starting point, but it’s not always sufficient. It takes this ecosystem to make it work.

But you have to be able to do this in concert with government, right, in order to reach enough people to really make a difference? How do you have those conversations in Philly?

RC: The way I think about it is: How do you work as partners? Private philanthropy, foundations and nonprofits can’t do this on their own—there’s not enough resources, not enough support. At the same time, government policy in isolation doesn’t have the human touch that seems to matter. It’s finding ways to work effectively together, and having more transparency and data around it. There should be clear accounts of where the money is going and what impact it is having.

Is there any place doing this well?

RC: In Seattle, there’s a lot of innovation around working to solve poverty. And in Charlotte. It ranks low in terms of economic opportunity, but when some earlier work came up, the city was very focused on trying to do something. It set up a task force, enacted a number of zoning changes, housing policies, thinking about how to fund certain schools and programs, local private companies like Bank of America started partnering with organizations like Year Up to think about how to hire people from local communities, from community colleges are doing things differently. We’ll see in the years ahead how that adds up. But I see in some cities this concerted effort to just do something.

You were doing research in Charlotte, right, which helped to prompt that work? Are you planning to do that kind of deep research here? Maybe if you do, you can also convince local leaders to do this.

RC: That would be great. That’s the purpose, for me at least, of doing events like this one here, to try to inspire some kind of local action.

That’s a good segue to ask: What is the aim of the event this week?

BG: The fact of the matter is, United Way is commemorating a 100th anniversary. When I first hear about that it’s not appealing. If you’ve been to a 100-year-old’s party, it’s not about what’s next. So, how do you have that conversation? It’s about noting that now that you’ve created a foundation you can do a lot more?

Raj is going to be in conversation with [United Way Chief Knowledge Officer] Andrea Anderson, who the United Way recruited from Detroit, who I understand to be one of the nation’s finest experts on data measurement evaluation and the big word—learning. We want to ask: Why are we stuck here, what are the barriers that we need to overcome, how do we know that to be true?

Like Andrea and Raj, I believe that any anti-poverty initiatives need the rigor of analysis and data, and the entire session is aimed at doing three things simply:

  1. Inspiring those who are there to know the problem is not bigger than our ability to address it.
  2. Understanding that we need to be smarter on it—we need to be informed. If you thought your own physical personal health could be improved by being smarter about it, you would take measures. Our city is ill, we need to learn what it is we could be doing to improve.
  3. Being emboldened to lock arms. Right now we don’t have healthy dynamics between business and the private sector; there’s not a lot of trust between wealthy individuals and community activists. It really is going to take a renewed virtuous alignment between those four corners of the city. This is a way to say United Way is willing to be in service to that mission.

I wish you luck.

Opportunity Summit, Friday, April 22, 8am-3pm, Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 South Independence Mall East, $125, register here.


Fighting Poverty With Jobs

Guest Commentary: The Real Opportunity Gap 

Ideas We Should Steal: Fix Poverty by Giving Cash to the Poor

Generation Change Philly: The Intergenerational Poverty Buster

The Higher Ed Opportunity

Header photo shows Bill Golderer (L) and Raj Chetty.

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