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The Need to Unlock Data to Inform Equity and Economic Mobility
Economic mobility remains elusive for far too many Americans and has been declining for several decades. A person born in 1980 is 50% less likely to earn more than their parents than a person born in 1950 is. While all children who grow up in low-opportunity neighborhoods face mobility challenges, racial, ethnic, and gender disparities add even more complexity. In 99% of neighborhoods in America, Black boys earn less, and are more likely to fall into poverty, than white boys, even when they grow up on the same block, attend the same schools, and have the same family income. In 2016, a Pew Research study found that the median wealth of white households was ten times the median wealth of Black households and eight times that of Hispanic households. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated existing disparities, as communities of color suffer higher exposure and death rates, along with greater job loss and increased food and housing insecurity.
Reversing this overall decline to address the persistent racial, ethnic, and gender gaps in economic mobility is one of the great challenges of our time. Some progress has been made in identifying the causes and potential solutions to declining mobility, yet policymakers, researchers, and the public still lack access to critical data necessary to understand which policies, programs, interventions, and investments are most effective at creating opportunity for students and workers, particularly those struggling with intergenerational poverty. Data collected across all levels of governments, nonprofit organizations, and private sector companies can help answer foundational policy and research questions on what drives economic mobility. There are promising efforts underway to improve government data infrastructure and processes at both the federal and state levels, but critical data often remains siloed, and legitimate concerns about privacy and civil liberties can make data difficult to share. Often, data on vulnerable populations most in need of services is of poor quality or is not collected at all.
To tackle this challenge, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the Markle Foundation (Markle) spent much of 2020 working with a diverse range of experts to identify strategic opportunities to accelerate progress towards unlocking data to improve policymaking, answer foundational research questions, and ensure that individuals can easily and responsibly access the information they need to make informed decisions in a rapidly changing environment.