Bridging the Gap to Increase Economic Mobility: A Conversation with Working Up
Working Up is a project aimed at facilitating increased economic mobility for low-income workers by convening 28 stakeholders across political ideologies and sectors to create solutions and frameworks to help individuals overcome barriers to work. Convened by the nonprofit organization, Convergence, Working Up released its final report in October 2018, which outlines a framework to meet the challenges of low-income workers and specific proposals for action. We spoke with Russell Krumnow, Director of the Economic Mobility and Poverty Project at Convergence, and Kate Griffin, Vice President for Programs at Prosperity Now, about the project and how it is facilitating opportunities to create work for those most in need.
Can you give us the back story on Working Up, and share what will come next for this campaign?
Russell: My organization, Convergence, is a small nonprofit that convenes people and groups across differences to build relationships, and ultimately solutions and recommendations. The idea for Working Up is that it would increase upward economic mobility through work, especially for people in the bottom half of the income distribution. Our theory of the case was that we needed stakeholders from the full range of players involved in this work, including businesses and worker advocates, so we thought about workforce needs and how to lift up lower wage workers. We convened representatives from big employers and from unions and others who advocate for workers, a community college president, philanthropy, people leading on the ground outside of DC in communities, as well as right- and left-leaning policy thinkers. There was racial and gender diversity among our stakeholder group as well.
For 18-months, this group met in a professionally facilitated dialogue process. We did shared learning and looked at existing reports, understood incentives, and conducted listening sessions with people facing barriers, like immigrants or people who had recently lost a job. We made sure we were rooted in lived experience. Over the course of that time, we came up with ideas that would increase overall mobility.
Then, we made a set of recommendations to develop workforce and career pathways and to increase quality of jobs when folks obtain them. We also discussed the supports needed around a higher wage, and the benefits of childcare and predictable schedules.
Kate: In this conversation, we can’t underscore the importance of the process and table that Russell laid out. Prosperity Now was keen to participate in the dialogue because it meant we were able to build deep relationships with the participants as we dug into meaningful issues. We also felt it was important that our issues of financial security were represented in the conversation. As you look at and read the recommendations and report, reflecting on the fact that we had such a diverse group of stakeholders spending time together to do this hard work is critical to understanding what we did. The way they facilitated the meeting by establishing trust and principles to create carefully negotiated agreements really makes what we came out with so much more powerful.
What is the plan to inject these ideas into the policy bloodstream?
Russell: One takeaway is we believe we can find better and more durable solutions with a diverse, cross-sector table. One way forward is lifting up the work of this group and seeing if we can solve more problems this way through collaborative efforts. We need folks advocating for workers, because our systems and siloes aren’t working together effectively for people struggling to survive each month and we need the perspective of employers who often aren’t at the table in discussions about increasing opportunity and reducing poverty. If not, we may reach solutions that are good for one group, but might disadvantage others without a full 360 degree view of the issue. We challenge leaders across sectors to take up this type of approach in their field.
On the specific merits of these ideas, one of the biggest concrete outcomes is the stakeholders in the group moving forward pieces of the agenda. We would not claim that our process is solely responsible for any particular actions given the complex factors at play, but we saw major employers like Walmart and McDonalds investing in workers in a way framed with this group’s conversations. We’ve seen a shift in educational training and people gaining high school diplomas and earning higher education credentials at a pace that works for them, and at a low cost that doesn’t require them to take on much debt.
Kate: The power of this is that in some respects, it really harnessed and leveraged some existing momentum and garnered additional support from unlikely bedfellows.
Also, as a collective, we were interested in what was the kind of bed rock infrastructure we needed to create to set people on a path of lifelong security. One issue we ended up zeroing in on was children’s savings programs. It’s exciting to see that in the framework of economic mobility, a children’s savings account was valued as a starting point.
Do you see these issues mainly being taken up in the private sector rather than in Congress due to the current political climate?
Russell: Right now that’s probably true – we’re not likely to see a huge burst in legislative activity. But there’s a lot of alignment on moving away from traditional hiring practices that disadvantage folks. For example, we often hire people in ways that are comfortable, but that don’t tell us if the person would be good in the job. Changing that might be consistent with the workforce agenda for the administration. There’s also a call for a reasonable paid leave standard here. We think it’s really important to address that our lowest wage workers don’t have a single guaranteed paid day off at some jobs, but they do lots of hard work – that’s not a great approach for their families and our larger economic health. State and private sector action is quite ripe right now, and these ideas could be pulled off the shelf in the future. We can also continue to be opportunistic and engage on things where relationships didn’t exist before now that this network of stakeholders are working together in big and small ways and have rich connections as a result of the dialogue.
Are you trying to get this report in the hands of 2020 candidates?
Russell: We’ve shared with a few folks. We’d love to see a rich debate and see continued focus on these ideas over the next 18 months. But we’re thinking there’s a lot that can be done through partnerships and our community colleges and employers. We’re asking everyone to take up parts of this. That way, pieces of the policy agenda could move. Of course, we hope expanding opportunity is at the center of the 2020 debate, not just at the national level but among candidates for office everywhere from both parties.
Kate: I think certainly you see, definitely in terms of the Democratic field, a lot of pieces here starting to show up in platforms. The power of what we did and the fact we took time to both understand the problem and sets of solutions shows we were able to get out of the day-to-day Washington grind and think about long term opportunities.
Does the group you convened continue to meet, or are there just organic relationships that continue to operate offline?
Russell: It’s a little more organic – people gave us a lot of sweat equity. We’ve had small groups meet, and people have connections and new relationships they can use to work together on things. Even some people that had slightly hostile organizational relationships before now have openings.
Are there specific examples of relationships you don’t think would have blossomed before this convening happened?
Russell: One specific example is that a stakeholder who represented Walmart and another who represented the National Employment Law Project built a rich relationship and have stayed in touch. They’re going to hold each other accountable, and there’s a deeper sense of understanding of the incentives behind their actions even though of course they’ll continue to have authentic differences. This process doesn’t mean people give up their authentic positions but rather find solutions or ways to work together they couldn’t without access to the time and investment as part of the dialogue.
Kate: This is also a conversation where the workforce sector isn’t typically talking to financial security folks. I don’t often sit at tables with labor unions, so that was really interesting for me to see and understand how not just employers, but unions and trade associations and community college folks, understand the financial security challenges and the common space between us.
Do you see this as an effective model for combatting future policy challenges?
Russell: I really do think that there will always be issues where the person with power will enact their agenda but it would be so powerful if we used collaborative problem-solving more often. In a big, loud, messy democracy, sometimes it’s very counterintuitive to slow down and spend this much time developing relationships – it’s really hard. But we want to get a sense structurally where we are and think about what kind of country we want to be. Let’s employ smart policy and practices that engage a full range of voices where folks have a clear, fuller sense of the challenges so we can get to solutions that take into account a range of perspectives including the lived experience of those most impacted.
Russell Krumnow is Director of the Economic Mobility and Poverty Project at Convergence. Kate Griffin is Vice President for Programs at Prosperity Now.