The untold story on upward mobility

For far too many of the last 50 years, the political debate about poverty has ended in deadlock. Shouts from the left to increase taxes on the wealthy to fund programs that help people in need are met with outcries on the right to reduce non-defense federal spending to reduce the deficit.

Ironically, the one bipartisan “compromise” this old debate has yielded is diminished spending on domestic discretionary programs like education and workforce development, which are often the core drivers of upward mobility. Even worse, among the federal programs that remain, far too few foster innovation, demand accountability, reward results, and engage the private and nonprofit sectors. Lacking these essential elements, our nation’s programs too often fall short in moving people from poverty into the middle class.

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The country needs a new vision to fight poverty. And we believe the president can offer us that by assuming the role of Social-Entrepreneur-in-Chief during his State of the Union address. To inspire meaningful bipartisan action, we believe the president should focus on transforming public programs to foster true upward mobility. President Obama already has a strong story to tell about this promising approach, thanks to some unheralded good work by his administration and legislators from both parties. On behalf of America Forward, a coalition of more than 50 innovative nonprofits and social enterprises that serve people in more than 1,000 American communities, we urge the president to focus on this untold story in his State of the Union Address.

The story begins with a system in dire need of change. Much current spending intended to advance opportunity is allocated in ways that are neither innovative nor results-oriented. In the business world, a failure to innovate or pay attention to the bottom line would not be tolerated. But with many federal programs, administrators and service providers are often held accountable only for outputs (how many people programs serve) rather than outcomes (whether programs actually achieve the intended results). Traditional program structures also contribute to program weaknesses. Big block grants offer flexibility without accountability, while more narrowly designed programs freeze specific interventions and providers in place, offering little flexibility to respond effectively to changing circumstances or unique local challenges. The risk and expense of big programs lock out small, high-impact organizations and squeeze out potentially more effective approaches like cross-sector collaboration, collective impact strategies, and national service and volunteer-based interventions.

Compounding the problem is Congress’s inability to pass program reauthorizations (the centerpiece legislation of our job training system was last updated the year Google was incorporated, and our early and secondary education law was last updated when this year’s graduating seniors were in kindergarten). Together, this way of doing business makes it nearly impossible to innovate to achieve better outcomes at lower costs. This all needs to change if we are to create an effective architecture of upward mobility.

The good news is that recently the old story has had some promising plot twists: 

  • The Social Innovation Fund combines public and private resources to grow promising community-based solutions that have evidence of results in advancing economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development.
  • Pay for Success approaches leverage private capital and make payments based on results achieved.
  • The Administration’s innovative K-12 reforms include programs that incentivize change at the state and local levels and fund high-performing nonprofits.
  • The Administration’s new Opportunity for All initiative aims to help hundreds of thousands of low-income students to obtain a college degree.
  • The Administration’s Promise Zones initiative partners the federal government with communities to create jobs, leverage private investment, increase economic activity, expand educational opportunities, and improve public safety.

Members of Congress from both parties have also pushed forward proposals that should be celebrated: 

  • The CAREER Act, a piece of legislation that was reintroduced  by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), would establish voluntary Pay for Success programs for the delivery of job training services in at least five states.
  • Language in both the House and Senate versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act encourages partnerships between schools and school districts and effective external organizations.
  • Pay for Performance language by Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) has been included in the House-passed SKILLS Act to reform federal workforce development programs.

These programs and recommendations are based on bipartisan principles of innovation, results, accountability, and public-private collaboration. We hope that President Obama will highlight them in the State of the Union and work to solidify them during his remaining time in office.  

Smolover is the executive director of America Forward, a public education initiative of the venture philanthropy organization New Profit Inc., and leads the America Forward Coalition of over 50 innovative organizations achieving results in education, workforce development, and poverty alleviation. Sagawa serves as the senior policy adviser to America Forward at New Profit and teaches social innovation policy at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown.