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Behind A New Institute For Economic Mobility: Powerful Data And Billionaire Donors

Caitlin Reilly

Opportunity Insights, a new policy and research institute based at Harvard University, recently scored two $15 million grants, one from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the other from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. An additional $6 million in support came from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Overdeck Family Foundation, which pledged $3 million each. 

Shannon Felton Spence, the institute’s communications director, said Opportunity Insights has a “commitment to upward mobility that goes beyond the research.”

The institute is founded by Raj Chetty and other economists at Harvard and Brown working at the cutting edge of mobility research. Chetty may be the most influential scholar working in this area right now, spearheading eye-opening data digs that document mobility—or, too often, a lack of it—in granular detail, attracting high-profile coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere. As part of its work, the institute created the Opportunity Atlas, which uses census data to map economic mobility by neighborhood. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided grant support for the atlas, which went live earlier this week. Commenting on the new data, the Times wrote, “This work, years in the making, seeks to bring the abstract promise of big data to the real lives of children. Across the country, city officials and philanthropists who have dreamed of such a map are planning how to use it. They’re hoping it can help crack open a problem, the persistence of neighborhood disadvantage, that has been resistant to government interventions and good intentions for years.”

Now, with a recently hired policy team, the institute is working to coordinate with stakeholders in several cities to turn research insights into actionable policies tailored to the local context. 

The big money lining up behind Opportunity Insights is a testament to both Raj Chetty’s reputation and the potency of the institute’s research. The mix of funders chipping in here is striking: All are grantmaking outfits bankrolled by living donors who’ve been huge winners in an economic system that’s under growing fire for generating historic levels of inequality. Typically, such donors have steered away from policy work that presses for more broadly shared prosperity, focusing instead on education or direct services. But times are changing. There seems to be growing awareness among wealthy philanthropists that the American Dream is in deep trouble, with diminished opportunity undermining the nation’s social cohesion and political stability. 

As we’ve reported, the Gates Foundation recently launched a major new effort to promote greater economic mobility—a first for this grantmaker. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has been developing work in this area for a while now, with a big focus on promoting greater equity in Silicon Valley. Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Overdeck Family Foundation have had little presence on economic equity issues so far, but both are deeply involved in education funding. 

The new Opportunity Insights grew out of the Equality of Opportunity Project, a research partnership focused on understanding the hidden forces influencing upward mobility. It is working with local stakeholders in Charlotte, North Carolina, Detroit, Minneapolis and Seattle, with plans to expand to more cities. Opportunity Insights coordinates with local stakeholders, including practitioners, policymakers and nonprofits—to develop plans to improve economic mobility based on data collected and analyzed by the institute. 

The policy team’s “whole mandate going forward is traveling across the country and getting the lay of the land,” Felton Spence said. “Not everything works in every area. You really need those local connections to make it work.”

Every city is different and it’s still “early days,” Felton Spence said, but so far, she can share that housing will likely be a big focus of the work in Charlotte, with the support of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Foundation For the Carolinas. 

In the case of Charlotte, the institute could use the Opportunity Atlas to suggest which neighborhoods should receive housing vouchers based on the link between neighborhoods and socioeconomic advancement captured by the data, Felton Spence said. 

Researchers can use data from the atlas to analyze the differences between neighborhoods that have above-average economic mobility for families and those that don’t to find what changes can be made for improvement. 

In a statement announcing the $15 million gift from CZI, Priscilla Chan highlighted her hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts, as one of the locales where kids often exceed expectations that are based on their families’ incomes. In Quincy, a quarter of kids end up in the top 20 percent of earners by their mid-30s. One goal of Opportunity Insights is to figure out the reasons behind anomalies like Quincy and try to replicate those circumstances elsewhere.

It’s interesting to see CZI, which is still finding its footing on economic mobility issues, putting up so much money for Opportunity Insights. But it tracks with the recent trajectory of this fast-evolving funder. The grant came from CZI’s justice and opportunity funding stream, a portfolio that includes four areas—criminal justice reform, economic opportunity, housing affordability and immigration reform.

Many of CZI’s grantees working on economic mobility use technology and data to fight poverty and promote families’ economic advancement. The funder supports the Family Independence Initiative, which has an online support network that gives direct grants to low-income families. CZI also supports Code for America, which is working to make it easier to access government social programs more quickly, and Opportunity@Work, which increases access to jobs and training needed to thrive in a 21st century economy.

But CZI has also been explicit from its start about the need to invest in policy and advocacy. It’s been a big player in regional efforts in Silicon Valley to promote more affordable housing, better transportation, and other measures to advance equity. Its grantmaking on criminal justice has supported a number of advocacy groups pushing for reform. David Plouffe, the political strategist and former Obama aide, serves as CZI’s president for policy and advocacy, and has been building out his team. 

Opportunity Insights is also a good fit for the Gates Foundation, as it moves into anti-poverty work. The funder seems intent on learning more about the ideas in the field and the facts on the ground as it expands its domestic giving to include economic mobility. 

The foundation funded a two-year research project called the U.S. Partnership for Mobility from Poverty before announcing its move into fighting domestic poverty on a national scale. The partnership brought together experts on poverty from around the country and across the political spectrum—including Raj Chetty—to come up with concrete steps that to promote economic mobility. 

Earlier this year, Gates unveiled a new four-year $158 million initiative that drew on the suggestions the partnership made. Part of Gates’ goal is to improve the data collection and sharing among nonprofits—many of which are working on the same problem in different locations. The hope is that sharing data will help distant nonprofits learn from each other and avoid unnecessarily duplicating efforts. Opportunity Insights’ emphasis on data and local partnerships dovetails nicely with those goals. 

A key question with an effort like this is to what extent it will engage underlying issues of class, race and power that go the heart of debates over inequality in America. Better data and targeted policy prescriptions are important, but expanded opportunity often requires systemic change in how economic and social systems operate—and to whose benefit. 

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