Innovation, Partnership, and Economic & Social Mobility in America

Sue Desmond-Hellmann
The Gates Foundation exists for one reason: to reduce inequity around the world.
We want to eliminate barriers that prevent people from living up to their full potential. And we have spent more than 15 years working with partners to learn about innovative, effective ways to do it.
When I travel on behalf of the Gates Foundation to countries such as India or Nigeria, I see people living in poverty held back from their potential to live healthy, productive, and prosperous lives. That’s why our work in developing countries prioritizes health as a primary building block to helping people rise from poverty.
And we know that poverty is a persistent problem that affects generations in the U.S.: roughly 43% of children who are born into the bottom income quintile will still be there as adults.
For years, we have been working to end family homelessness in our home community of the Pacific Northwest. And across the country, we’ve focused on helping students receive a great education so that they can seize opportunities to build brighter futures.
Through this work 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.
From day one, Bill and Melinda wanted their foundation to learn and evolve over time in order to make impact on the areas of greatest need. The things we don’t know make the work we do difficult. Equally, the things we want answers to compel us to come to work every day.
Today is no different. Our journey as a learning organization continues.
This morning, the Urban Institute is announcing a grant from the Gates Foundation to establish a national Partnership on Mobility from Poverty . It 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.
This is new territory for the Gates Foundation, and the Partnership has me excited for three reasons:
First, the Partnership is a resource for the field. It is an independent learning effort that will ensure the good ideas that emerge for making progress will be available for all, with the goal of setting an agenda for action. And while funded by the Gates Foundation, the Partnership independently sets its own agenda.
Second, the purpose is to generate ideas. Lots of ideas for many actors — public and private — to consider. The Partnership builds on the groundwork others have already laid and will define a set of priority issues and questions to guide its work. This effort is about understanding the factors that, in addition to education, shape long-term outcomes for children, families, and individuals. And since the Partnership is not about building consensus among its members, every idea for making progress can be put on the table.
Third, the brightest minds are working on it — together.
So, we have visionary thinkers and doers coming together to explore lots of ideas that could help people escape poverty in America — and those findings are available to the public.
That really speaks to me because it’s a new approach to a very old problem, and it demonstrates the tremendous power of partnerships. I’ve devoted my career as a cancer researcher, product developer, university chancellor, and — now — foundation CEO to harnessing innovation and collaboration to make change.

The bottom line is: We have to do better — the next generation depends on it.

The promise of America is that everyone has a chance to succeed no matter where they start. This should be a reality for every family from Seattle to St. Louis and beyond. I am optimistic that by working together in new ways millions more Americans will see it as a promise kept.