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Increasing economic mobility by bringing together nine US cities

An innovative cohort model helps make progress on the American Dream - blog 1 of 3

  • Blog
  • 13th Jun 2022

Economic mobility lies at the heart of the American dream—that everyone be able to reach their highest aspirations through equal access to opportunity in education, employment, and more. However, this dream is far from reality, especially for communities of color and people struggling to make ends meet.

Cities nationwide are trying to change that. They’re at the forefront of the issue, leveraging policies and programs to increase economic mobility for residents. But with many courses of action to choose from, it’s not always clear what will work for each city’s unique needs.

While collaborating with Bloomberg Philanthropies on What Works Cities (WWC), we wondered: What would happen if cities convened as a group to share learnings and progress on their goals? The What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative was born.

From April 2019 to October 2021, Results for America (RFA) and the Behavioral Insights Team partnered with a cohort of nine cities on the shared objective of advancing economic mobility. We brought cities together, helping them forge relationships with each other while they developed behaviorally-informed interventions to support economic growth.

As founding members of WWC, we knew that we could work with cities one-on-one to build behavioral insights and evaluation capacity. We had strong reason to believe that a joint effort among cities to address a specific issue would have even greater social impact.

Initial results were promising. By streamlining a high school internship enrollment process, more local students have access to high-growth career paths in New Orleans, LA. A single letter in Newark, NJ resulted in 1,900 new affordable housing units on the market for low-income families. A 50% savings match incentive helped people save more money from their Earned Income Tax Credit in Rochester, NY.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a 3-part series about our economic mobility work: a blog detailing our partnership with Dayton, OH to improve access to early childhood education and a piece all about applying behavioral insights to increase program uptake. But first, we’re excited to share insights from the cohort model itself.

The innovative cohort model 

Twenty three cities applied to join the cohort and nine were chosen to participate: Cincinnati, OH; Dayton, OH; Detroit, MI; Lansing, MI; New Orleans, LA; Newark, NJ; Racine, WI; Rochester, NY; and Tulsa, OK. Through their applications, these cities demonstrated dedication to data-informed policymaking and outlined local strategies to advance economic mobility.

Nine cities were convened to make progress on a single issue over 2.5 years

The What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative wouldn’t have been possible without forward-thinking supporters Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ballmer Group, plus RFA, who led the project and were indispensable partners and program managers.

Over 30 months, BIT and RFA helped these cities identify, pilot, and evaluate the success of their behavioral interventions, as well as build data infrastructure to help them make decisions. We also convened the cities consistently to make connections and problem-solve. This was a very short timeline for this work, especially with the ultimate objective of ensuring all residents can achieve economic mobility, which is a complex goal that may take generations to fully realize. 

But we suspected that two and a half years would be sufficient for cities to prioritize initiatives to scale for the long term. Despite the onset of pandemic and resulting stay at home orders—which required some time for our teams to quickly shift all in-person plans to fully remote projects in the middle of the cohort—this suspicion turned out to be true.

What worked well

We designed the cohort using behavioral insights to help the cities maintain momentum toward their goals. A few important factors that contributed to its success were:

Social structure and shared learning. An innovative aspect of the cohort was the strong relationships we helped build between the cities. Initially, we had planned to convene them every six months at short, in-person conferences. Because of the pandemic, these group sessions happened through thoughtfully designed virtual events where the cities presented their work so far, learned from one another, and solved challenges together.

In addition, every month RFA called each city individually to bring even more learnings to light. Through these conversations, RFA arranged new, unexpected connections between local governments while BIT translated project to project learnings. For example, Racine, WI and New Orleans, LA were linked up to share insights from their projects to increase educational program enrollment. 

Unlike undertaking a project alone, where schedules can be flexible and the work can stall, this social element and shared expectations were key to keeping cities accountable and consistent in making progress in a relatively short time.

Reducing frictions with seed funding. Getting the resources to pilot a new program can be a major barrier for cities trying to innovate. Developing a pitch, obtaining approval, and accessing the funds can take months to carry out.

To smooth that friction, cities were provided $150,000 of flexible funding to use on their economic mobility projects. Upon joining, they received a grant of $10,000 to conduct initial research and identify the questions they’d like to answer through focus groups, surveys, interviews, and more.

Once their research objectives were established, the remaining funding went toward their interventions. Cities used these funds however they thought best. Some hired part-time staff to help implement new programs while others piloted monetary incentives to test. This automatic funding enabled cities to be ambitious and pragmatic with their projects and bypass the hurdle of figuring out how it’s going to get paid for.

A signal of commitment. A commitment device creates a sense of accountability and deters breaking intentions. We had mayors write a public letter of support for the economic mobility cohort at the beginning of the work. This formal message was a signal of commitment that communicated the importance of each city’s efforts to residents and other stakeholders. It also increased the costs of withdrawing from the initiative.

To make this commitment even stronger, our city partners provided their mayors with updates every six months. These official report-back sessions helped maintain momentum and provided clear next steps for city leadership to act upon. 

The future of issue-specific cohorts

Increasing economic mobility is a huge challenge. The economic mobility cohort has demonstrated that cities can make real progress on it together—and it’s just the beginning.

With the right partners and robust up-front planning, the cohort model can work for participants that range from federal agencies and state governments to health care institutions. We see the potential of focused cohorts to make change in many other policy areas and social issues, such as addressing the opioid epidemic, rethinking how people access government benefits, and more. 

To learn more about the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative cohort or to explore how we can help you connect with others in your field on a pressing topic, contact us here.


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