Now This Is Interesting: The Gates Foundation Backs a Big New Look at U.S. Poverty

Two weeks ago, I argued here that the top education funders hadn’t achieved transformative results with their reform strategies, and that it was it time for them think bigger—embarking on new efforts to tackle poverty and the other structural inequities that hold back kids.

This same point has been made by many others, but it hasn’t gained much traction with the top education funders—namely Gates, Walton and Broad. All those funders have steered clear of addressing the dire conditions outside of schools that leave so many children disadvantaged, staying resolutely focused on improving what happens inside schools.  

Until now.

In what may be a truly significant move, the Gates Foundation is making a $3.7 million grant to the Urban Institute to fund a Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, which the institute describes as a “new collaborative aimed at discovering permanent ladders of mobility for the poor.”

This initiative is not a complete surprise. As I noted in my article two weeks ago, the Gates Foundation has long been involved in fighting homelessness in the Pacific Northwest—and IP has explored how the foundation has been making the link in that region between housing inequities and educational success. Also, last year, Bill Gates openly said that the foundation was not getting the dramatic results it wanted from its existing (narrow) approach to education. “There’s no dramatic change,” Gates told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Meanwhile, Gates has also said that he’s worried about inequality, a growing concern among funders, writing in late 2014 that he agreed with the thrust of Thomas Piketty’s analysis in Capital in the 21st Century.

So here we are now, with the Gates Foundation announcing its first major effort to grapple with poverty in America writ large.

Writing in Medium, Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann acknowledges that the foundation is entering “new territory” and explained why: “We have learned an enormous amount about the structural barriers that can put pathways to opportunity out of reach. And we know that while access to an education is a critical driver of economic mobility — and the intervention that remains our primary focus in the U.S. — it is not the only intervention needed to address poverty here at home.”

Desmond-Hellmann described the Gates Foundation as a “learning organization,” and this move underscores that. It casts the foundation in a positive lightas a place willing to follow the facts where they lead, even if that means going outside its past comfort zone and into a thicket of issues that’s even thornier than K-12. (Never mind how long it took Gates to grasp a set of facts that have long been obvious.)

In a recent conversation, Ryan Rippelwho works closely with Desmond-Hellman as a Senior Project Officertold me that the initiative with the Urban Institute “is reflective of the foundation’s broader mission, which is to learn and reduce inequities around the world, and in the United States.” Rippel stressed that the Urban Institute is taking the lead in the partnership and that Gates is not setting the group’s agenda. He also said the foundation’s core priorities are “very much the same same. They are not changing as a result of this initiative.” But he echoed Desmond-Hellman's point about looking beyond education at "other interventions that are necessary for improving opportunity.”

Maybe I’m over-playing this, but to hear the Gates Foundation talk about structural barriers, poverty, and the need for “other interventions” to improve opportunity feels like a turning point in the polarized ed wars. Too often, those wars have pitted two absolutist views against each other: On one side, the reformers’ faith that poor kids can do much better academically if we just improve schools; on the other side, the view that poverty is a basic impediment to better educational outcomes. Both sides have been loathe to cede any ground to the other.

Now, here comes the CEO of the Gates Foundation calling for a broader, more integrated approach to helping kids and their families get ahead—with the subtext, to my ears anyway, that maybe it’s time for a ceasefire in the ed wars.

In typical Gates fashion, the new initiative at the Urban Institute is ambitious. Desmond-Hellman says that the Partnership for Mobility is:

a non-partisan group of leaders, experts, and practitioners who will identify promising interventions to make real, lasting progress against persistent poverty in America.

Over the next two years, the 24 members will work together to learn from communities and families living in poverty; the nation’s leading service providers and advocates for the poor; and a wide network of experts about what works, what doesn’t work, and what interventions will lead to permanent ladders out of poverty over the next decade.

The group is chaired by David Ellwood of Harvard’s Kennedy School, a veteran scholar and practitioner on poverty issues. And it includes a diverse array of members. Members that lean right include AEI president Arthur Brooks and Joshua Bolten, George W. Bush’s chief of staff. People from the progressive side include Aijen-Poo of the  National Domestic Workers Alliance and Robert Greenstein, director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

The good news is that, as Desmond-Hellman explains, this project “is not about building consensus among its members, every idea for making progress can be put on the table.”

Ryan Rippel emphasizes that “this is genuinely, and sincerely, a learning effort for us, and one that we hope will help the field as well.” He reiterates that the foundation has no plans to move beyond its current program priorities in the U.S. of education and funding in the Pacific Northwest.

Still, if you know how the Gates Foundation works, you know that big exploratory grants like this one often lay the groundwork for bigger things to come. The foundation first spends a large chunk of money to identify solutions that work. Then it spends a far bigger pile on those solutions. As I have often noted, Bill and Melinda Gates have huge wealth sitting on the sidelines—easily enough to double the foundation’s grantmaking. If the Gateses decides to take on poverty in America, they certainly have the resources.

The Gates Foundation’s move to engage this area is well timed. While debates over poverty have long been deeply polarized—between those who think more individual responsibility is the key to progress and those who focus on systemic economic and racial inequities—there’s been some movement toward common ground in recent years. More progressives are keen to address individual-level issues (like getting fathers involved with their kids, as IP has reported), while more conservatives are ready to talk about how the economy fails to work for those with few skills.

The Gates partnership with the Urban Institute is another indication that the issues of poverty and inequality are climbing higher on philanthropy’s agenda. The Irvine Foundation recently announced it would phase out all its other work to focus on raising up California’s working poor. Meanwhile, the Ford Foundation has rebranded itself as a funder entirely focused on inequality.

Obvious questions remain as to whether philanthropy—a product of capitalism—can ever go far enough in confronting the gross inequities produced by that system.

For example, while foundations love to talk about fostering upward mobility, the fact is that, right now, there aren’t nearly enough good jobs in the United States for people who do want to move up.

Many of the jobs created by the U.S. economy pay crappy wages and no benefits. Recently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that 9.8 million new jobs will be created between 2014 and 2024. Yet a majority will be the kinds of jobs that now typically pay less than $15 an hour—basically, near-poverty wages.  

Anyway you slice it, combating poverty in America has to mean taking on the low-wage economywhich, in turn, means taking on the industries that profit in that economy, while leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for safety net programs needed to offset low-road employment models.

The Ford Foundation is the biggest funder that now understands that and is on the case. Will the Gates Foundation ever join this fight? That strikes me as unlikely, but I could imagine it doing various other things that make a difference. Maybe most likely is that the foundation will invest in those anti-poverty interventions that are clearly shown to enable children to do better in school. The area of housing could be key in this regard, and it’s one where Gates already has experience.

For now, though, the Gates Foundation is still in learning mode. “We go into this with a lot of questions,” says Ryan Rippel of the new partnership. “We look forward to considering the recommendations that it makes as it does this work.”

This should be interesting.