A good job. A decent income. A path to upward mobility and the sense that if you work hard, it shouldn’t all hang by a thread. These are all bedrock American ideals grounded in work that have become unattainable for far too many — especially for people starting at the lower end of the economic ladder.
A few stats bear this out: 90 percent of 30-year-olds born in 1940 earned more than their parents did at the same age; by the 2010s, that number had plummeted to 50 percent. Over those 40 years, income inequality exploded, with those at the top seeing their wages and opportunity spike, while those near the bottom saw little improvement despite increased productivity.
Reversing this trend cannot happen overnight. Our country needs bold leadership, creativity, and collaboration from the stakeholders who touch every corner of the economy — politicians, corporate leaders, nonprofit organizations, and advocates. For far too long, placing blame or playing politics instead of trying to find common ground has contributed to declining economic mobility. Having spent years with our respective organizations not always working closely together, we would know.
That began to change when Convergence Center for Policy Resolution approached us and 26 other diverse companies to start a dialogue about renewing work as an engine of economic mobility. Convergence has tackled some of the country’s toughest issues, including health care, education, and the federal budget. The resulting fresh ideas were taken up by leaders across sectors and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
For nearly two years, we joined leaders from Walmart, the Aspen Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Employment Law Project, and others, to create a framework for expanding opportunity, particularly focused on low-income Americans. We started by sitting down with old adversaries and new friends to build trust. That spawned deep conversations about fundamental road blocks to upward mobility and listening sessions with Americans facing barriers to opportunity.
Together, our diverse stakeholder group agreed on a set of bold principles and specific proposals for renewing economic mobility and business growth. Our group quickly recognized that conversations about increasing opportunity and reducing poverty often occur in silos, but it was critical that our report avoid zero-sum solutions.
We identified four key actions to renew economic mobility, which are interrelated. They include building on-ramps to the workforce and routes to move up through regional employer partnerships; improving job quality for lower-wage workers by expanding access to child care and paid time off; increasing financial stability for those with volatile income; and removing barriers for key populations like those experiencing long-term unemployment or returning from incarceration.
As a North Star, the group agreed on principles to guide leaders from all vantage points. Working with dignity for a decent income is central to a good life and we believe that all Americans should have the opportunity to work to increase their skills while providing stability for their families. We need to remove barriers to work created by place, race, class, gender, disability, and age.
Importantly, these responsibilities should be shared appropriately among workers, employers, government, and society. Finally, employers are critical partners in creating work opportunities, and we need them at the table for their perspective as we try to reduce poverty and increase job quality.
At Microsoft, we are committed to working with individuals and organizations around the world to acquire and demonstrate future-ready skills. Sustained employability is essential for economic viability and well-being. We’re proud to work with McDonald’s, Walmart, Convergence, and other stakeholders on this important initiative.
As the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights and advocacy organization, the National Urban League works with groups like Convergence and its cross-sector partners to affect change and foster economic empowerment for low- and moderate-income households and communities of color.
Meeting the challenge of stagnant economic mobility can send people straight to their corners. We know honest disagreements about how best to navigate a rapidly changing economy will continue. But this project shows that we can develop the skilled workforce businesses need while providing quality jobs for more Americans.
Even if we can’t resolve every challenge, we can collectively improve the lives of low-income Americans. Despite rising public disgust at our inability to get things done, we have proven that when we learn from one another, we find solutions that are good for business, good for workers, and good for the country. We hope leaders across the nation, including our elected officials, will join us.
Karen Kocher is general manager for jobs, skills & employability at Microsoft. Clint Odom is senior vice president for policy at the National Urban League.