Equitable Growth’s 2020 Request for Proposals is an opportunity to better understand the structural barriers to intergenerational mobility

Two years ago, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth launched a new initiative to connect the dots between poverty, inequality, and mobility. Harvard economist—and founding Equitable Growth Steering Committee member—Raj Chetty had reinvigorated the conversation about intergenerational mobility with his dramatic findings that absolute mobility had declined from 90 percent for the generation born in 1940 to only 50 percent for those born in 1980. But what are the actual channels connecting inequality and mobility?

One product resulting from this initiative was a strategic framework report by Elisabeth Jacobs and myself, “Are today’s inequalities limiting tomorrow’s opportunities?,” which surveyed the academic literature on economic mobility to determine what we know and what we need to know about the drivers of intergenerational mobility. The report emphasized crucial factors related to the acquisition of human capital—such as improving education, particularly early childhood education—and found that they are insufficient when seeking to understand why mobility has declined over time and why mobility outcomes remain sharply divergent for Americans of different races and in different places.

Over the past year, we shared this framework in convenings and meetings with researchers; policymakers at the national, state, and local levels; and advocacy groups dedicated to advancing racial and economic justice. The feedback we received made clear that there is still more work to be done to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms connecting parental economic advantage and children’s adult economic outcomes.

This year, we hope to invest in research that pushes beyond individual-level factors such as education and skills and explores the structural barriers that people face in realizing their full human potential, particularly racism and public policies that create and perpetuate those structural barriers. We welcome proposals asking questions about how changes to the labor market such as fissuring and the erosion of career ladders affect intergenerational mobility. What are the mechanisms via which race and place influence intergenerational mobility? How does family wealth—not just income—impact mobility? What are the mechanisms underlying the relationships between mobility and family structure, and what do they imply about policies that can support families and break the link between family background and economic outcomes?

These are just some examples of the questions that Equitable Growth is interested in exploring as part of our 2020 Request for Proposals to academics to explore these and other issues related to inequality and mobility. Equitable Growth’s grants program, now entering its seventh year, includes a portfolio of cutting-edge scholarly research investigating the various channels through which economic inequality may or may not impact economic growth and stability, both directly and indirectly. The organization has provided grants to more than 200 researchers and distributed more than $5.6 million in grants. Earlier this year, Equitable Growth announced 14 grants to 33 researchers and 13 grants to doctoral student researchers totaling $1.064 million. Equitable Growth bridges the gap between academia and policy by fostering research that is relevant to today’s policy debates, and by informing policymakers of cutting-edge research.

The American Dream remains a dominant narrative in U.S. economic policy conversations. And the “pull-yourself-up -by-the-bootstraps” metaphor remains the dominant one for how Americans think about achieving the American Dream. Yet research clearly demonstrates this is a facile response that ignores the role of legal barriers, policy choices, and discrimination in shaping and determining economic outcomes. By funding new, cutting-edge scholarly research that examines the role of structural barriers to economic mobility, Equitable Growth will be able to arm policymakers with solutions that make the American Dream live up to its promise.

December 18, 2019


Liz Hipple


Economic Mobility


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