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  • 17th Jan 2020

Increasing economic mobility in US cities

Leveraging evidence and local know-how to create upward mobility for residents

Earlier this year, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ballmer Group launched a new program to increase economic mobility in a number of US cities. This program is part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative, which helps local governments improve residents’ lives by using data and evidence effectively to tackle pressing challenges.  The Behavioural Insights Team has been a core partner in this initiative for several years, working in over 50 US cities to help implement evidence-based approaches to improve communities. 

We have been working with cities and their community partners over the past few months to identify promising approaches to increasing the economic mobility of their residents. We verified and strengthened these approaches by reviewing the existing evidence base and spending time on the ground to better understand the needs of each community. We are also incorporating cutting edge findings from behavioral science to improve service delivery. After months of hard work, we are excited to finally implement these projects. 

In this blog, we briefly describe the work that we aim to complete over the next year in each city. These projects aim to support mayoral priorities, build on existing evidence, provide a path to scale, and leverage existing resources.  By integrating the projects into existing city priorities, we aim to maximize the chances that the work will continue beyond the end of the program. We will evaluate these projects to learn what works and will share our learnings to help other communities improve economic mobility. 

Our work with cities spans across several policy areas that act as levers to improve economic mobility: 


In Cincinnati, Ohio, we are working with the city and the recently formed Workforce Innovation Center to develop and test an engagement strategy and platform designed to encourage employers to adopt evidence-informed policies and practices. These will help increase the retention and advancement of employees and will foster collaboration with local service providers who can address the acute issues preventing employees from succeeding at work. 

In New Orleans, Louisiana, we are working with the city and local NGO YouthForce NOLA to create “off-the-shelf” evidence-based internship curricula that make it easier for employers in high-growth industries to engage with local youth through internships. We will also address the barriers youth face in accessing career pathway programs by facilitating the intake and documentation process.

In Racine, Wisconsin, we are working with the city and local partners to help residents obtain a high school credential. To do this, we are: 

  1. Implementing new peer referral strategies for recruitment into the local YWCA Southeast Wisconsin’s High School Equivalency Diploma program; 
  2. Leveraging community partnerships to scale up the program; 
  3. Improving connections after graduation into continued education, training, or job placement.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, we are working with the city and Tulsa Community WorkAdvance to tailor their training and job placement program to meet the needs of Tulsa’s disconnected youth, i.e. those who are neither in school or a job. We are piloting new behaviorally-informed recruitment materials, a new orientation kick-off activity, and a new coaching program that leverages commitment devices and positive reinforcement.   


In Detroit, Michigan, we are working with the Housing and Revitalization Department and private building owners to create a pathway for residents of income-restricted affordable housing to:

  1. Communicate their needs; 
  2. Learn about available programs and services; 
  3. Take advantage of free financial counseling provided by Detroit’s Financial Empowerment Center. 

In Newark, New Jersey, we are developing a number of complementary interventions to reduce evictions. We are conducting targeted outreach to Newark property owners to increase registrations of rental units with the Office of Rent Control. We are also working with the newly-created office of Tenant and Legal Services to expand their service offering and reach more at-risk tenants. 

Financial Empowerment 

In Lansing, Michigan, we are bringing together a loose network of existing programs and services into a unified offering for students and parents to help them save and plan for college. As we formalize this into a single offering, we will also pilot new delivery mechanisms for the combined service offering to bring them to high-need neighborhoods and improve the accessibility of existing intake processes.

In Rochester, New York, we are developing a year-round EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) program, ROCyourRefund, informed by behavioral science and designed to increase savings and income stability. Rather than drawing down their entire return in a lump sum at tax time, participants in the ROCyourRefund program will save a portion of their tax return (at least $200) to be paid out to them in quarterly installments throughout the year. All participants in ROCyourRefund will receive additional services to support them in successfully saving a portion of their refund. As an additional incentive to save, participants will also be randomly assigned to receive either no match, a 25% match, or a 50% match on whatever money participants put away in their account. 

Early Childhood Education 

In Dayton, Ohio, we are pursuing a multi-pronged approach to increase preschool attendance and lower the achievement gap. The project will pilot weekly text message reminders to parents, an attendance commitment plan for parents, and a new role of the “enrollment and attendance advocate” who will support parents. We will also pilot low-cost thinkscapes (playful urban learning environments) that advertise preschool at strategic locations where low-income parents may be waiting with their children (e.g., a bus stop). These will have the dual benefit of raising awareness of the value of preschool and providing opportunities for play-based learning. 

We have been inspired  by the commitment and motivation of our city and community partners, and we are grateful for the support we have received from the funders and Results for America, who are coordinating the program. We are excited to continue our work with the cities and to see what results we can achieve to drive upward economic mobility.

For more information about this work, please contact Carolina Toth (, who leads the What Works Cities initiative for BIT, or Kelsey Gohn, who is the Deputy Program Lead. Johannes Lohmann, who was leading our work on the economic mobility program, is now leading our work on employment, organizational behavior, and public sector innovation in the UK.


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