03/13/2013 06:10 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Igniting Economic and Social Mobility

Jeb Bush recently declared that we are no longer a nation defined by social mobility. He described widening income disparities as a "structural problem" and said that it's "un-American" that the probability of being rich or poor is determined not by one's own efforts, but by the class one is born to. This comment, coming from a leading Republican, has generated a lot of attention. On March 7th, NPR's Talk of the Nation hosted a discussion on the decline of the American Dream in which the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trust presented a study showing that although many people make more money than their parents did, they are not better off socially or economically. And 70 percent of the people who are in the lowest levels of the economy do not make it out. This "stickiness" of class calls into question our deepest democratic values that hold that if you work hard you can do well.

Pundits on both sides are looking at education and education reform as the issue to address economic mobility. While I agree that getting higher education can be an important tool for economic and social mobility, educational success does not occur in a vacuum and generating more economic and social mobility won't happen with a single-issue focus.

My organization, the Family Independence Initiative (FII), recently released an independent study conducted in Boston that shows the impressive impact our family-led approach has on economic and social mobility. These results have critical insights for those policy makers and pundits who are thinking seriously about how to increase mobility for low-income and working poor families.

What is evident from the study is that by creating environments of opportunity that strengthen a sense of community, respect families' self-determination and decision-making and offer access to resources in measure with initiative -- low-income people can (and do) move forward on a trajectory of upward mobility.

If you're unfamiliar with our work, FII is designed to learn how low-income and working poor families build economic and social mobility in order to catalyze a large-scale movement to make family-driven economic and social mobility the norm. Families within the FII network set their own priorities and drive their own efforts to improve their lives within an environment of strong social connections and access to initiative-based resources.

The study, conducted by the third party evaluation firm See Change Evaluation, collected interviews, surveys and financial data from 34 families (148 individuals) that have been involved with FII's Boston project over a two year period, along with a newer group of 175 families who have been involved for one year. Major study findings include:

  • Within two years of joining FII, approximately one out of every two families living below the federal poverty line at the outset moved above the poverty line.
  • At the outset, only 27 percent of respondents reported having "a lot of people I can count on." After two years, 91 percent of families felt they could count on others for help and support if needed, and considered other group members as "family."
  • Families supplemented their earning by starting or expanding 53 businesses, which created the equivalent of 80 full time positions.
  • Household earned income increased an average of 27 percent after two years.
  • Savings rose an average of 187 percent after two years.
  • 56 percent of families had at least one adult enroll in post secondary education during the two-year period.

The results from this study add to the growing body of evidence that FII's family-led approach produces stronger results than the needs-based social program interventions of the last 50 years. This study shows that to create mobility for low-income families, instead of providing more professional direction, we need to follow while families lead.

If we want to reignite economic and social mobility, our policy makers and philanthropists need to look more broadly than the single issue of education and to engage in creating environments of opportunity. Our role is to make available a broad array of opportunities -- financial and social capital investments that low-income people can access as they take the initiative to improve their lives.