Central to the American Dream is the belief that through education and hard work, each generation can raise its standard of living, and create greater opportunities for the next. But over the past forty years, incomes for lower-wage workers have stagnated, and economic inequality has increased.  Education and hard work are no longer a guarantee of upward mobility for lower-wage workers.

In the face of these trends, the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution convened a diverse group of leaders two years ago to explore the question: How can work become a stronger engine of economic mobility for lower-income workers? CBI advised on the process and facilitated the group’s work. The group included representatives of major employers and small business, the labor movement and worker advocates, right- and left-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups, innovative non-profit service providers, higher education and philanthropy.

While the process was challenging at many junctures, this group achieved agreement on both principles and proposals. Its report, released in October 2018, recommends four key pathways to improved economic mobility for lower-income workers. These pathways range from offering relevant skill building and training, to improving job quality options, to boosting financial security, to removing barriers to entry for those who have been out of the workforce for an extended time period. 

A Concerning Trend Toward Lower Economic Mobility

The urgency of the challenge is new and in some ways surprising. Throughout our history, work that provides a decent standard of living has been a critical pathway to upward economic mobility. Yet today, the U.S. is facing unprecedented slowdowns on that path. In 1980, 80 percent of 30-year olds were earning more than their parents did at the same age. In 2010, only 50 percent were earning more. The trend toward lower mobility seems to have stayed with us until today, even as the economy and employment have recovered. Moreover, while incomes have stagnated for many, economic inequality has risen significantly. If economic mobility is falling while inequality is increasing, then those who start low on the economic ladder are likely to experience little improvement in their standard of living over their lifetimes, even if they work hard.

No single factor accounts for the reduced power of work to lift those who start with lower incomes. There is vigorous analytic and political debate over which of many causes is most significant:

  • global economic and technological shifts, including automation of lower-skill jobs, global outsourcing in the manufacturing sector, and the growing importance of advanced knowledge and skills for higher-paying jobs;
  • reduced labor bargaining power, due to the declining role of organized labor as a force for raising wages, and public policies that have become less favorable to the labor movement;
  • a growing disconnect between the skills that education and job training systems provide and what employers need and will provide; and
  • social shifts, particularly rising numbers of single-parent, lower-income families, and declining communities with lower expectations for work and advancement.

A case can be made for each and all of these factors undercutting the power of work as an engine of economic mobility for those born into lower-income families.

As mobility has slowed, the politics of blame have intensified. Americans have been at odds over who is responsible for the loss of economic mobility, and over what to do about it. In recent years, it has become harder for those with very different views and interests on the issue of work and mobility to come together for serious dialogue and a search for solutions. It has been very rare for employers, lower-income workers and their representatives, employment and training experts, and others with a stake in the issue of economic mobility to seek common ground.

Working Up Identifies Levers for Change

After an extensive stakeholder and issue assessment process in which CBI played an advisory role, Convergence brought together a remarkable group of 28 leaders and experts representing a broad spectrum of constituencies and views for the Working Up dialogue. The goal was to come together on ways to strengthen work’s contribution to mobility. Convergence asked CBI Managing Director David Fairman to facilitate the group’s work.  Over eighteen months, the group used deep dialogue, joint review of evidence, sharing of best practices, listening sessions with people facing barriers to opportunity, and collaborative negotiation to bridge differences. The group reached consensus on principles linking work and economic mobility, key challenges facing lower-income workers, and a framework of four actions to meet those challenges: 

  • strengthen systems and incentives for skill building, career exposure, job search, hiring, and advancement, from youth through adulthood;
  • improve job quality for lower-wage workers, including income from work and supports for work (such as paid sick time, child care, and flexible, predictable schedules);
  • increase financial stability and security starting in childhood, including workplace supports such as employer- and community-supported emergency funds, funding for job search, and immediate access to accrued pay; and
  • reduce the most significant barriers to work for people who have experienced long-term unemployment, incarceration, or discrimination. 

More on each of these recommendations can be found in the group’s recently released Working Up report.

Lessons Learned from the Process

Given the diversity of the group, the breadth and depth of contributing causes, and the highly polarized political context, the process has not been easy. CBI, Convergence, and the members of the group worked through several core challenges together: articulating shared principles; prioritizing key issues; finding the right level of ambition for recommendations; and dealing with deep disagreements on the role of government policies and requirements. Several lessons and insights emerged through the process.

Exploration of Shared Principles Uncovered Areas of Agreement – and Difference

First, spending time to articulate shared principles helped the group to see that there was important ideological and philosophical common ground, and began to shed light on what would be most difficult to resolve. Most striking was the group’s agreement that improving mobility for lower-wage workers is a critically important economic opportunity for all stakeholders, and that workers, employers and government have distinct (though overlapping) responsibilities for building job skills and career ladders; creating quality jobs with supports for family life; attaining financial stability; and removing barriers to work that exclude disadvantaged groups. At the same time, the principles conversation revealed strong differences of view about whether the government should commit to full employment as a macroeconomic policy, whether employers should be required to provide a living wage, and several other issues that are both economically and ideologically charged.

Sharing and Vetting Good Practices Supported Creation of Strong Recommendations

Second, the group was able to build directly on the insights and experience of its members to agree on best practices for workforce skills and career paths, and on ways to improve financial security for lower-income workers. In these areas, the group functioned more as a learning community than a negotiating body. Having vetted a number of innovative programs and practices (some brought forward by members of the group from their own organizations, and others brought forward by researchers and advocates with extensive knowledge of the field), the group was able to craft strong recommendations for replicating and advancing good practices, backed by examples and evidence.

Trust Building Enabled Group to Tackle Tough Questions

Finally, the group was able to build enough mutual trust and respect over the course of several meetings to enable constructive discussion of very difficult issues. Among the most challenging were the option for a national policy establishing a minimum amount of paid sick leave, and the ability of employers to offer predictable and flexible schedules to lower-wage workers. Larger employers sought national standards that would allow consistency in their operations across states and localities. Smaller employers wanted exemptions from requirements that could jeopardize their viability. Worker representatives aimed for significant commitments to support both national legislation and ambitious, voluntary efforts among employers.  Ultimately, all were able to advance their core interests through frank and constructive dialogue, negotiation, and problem-solving.

Throughout the Working Up process, the participating leaders and experts were buffeted by the strong winds of partisanship. Several participants represented organizations and constituencies that have been battling each other in the public square. Participants said that they were pleased with the progress on important substantive issues. Many also said that the process was a rare and welcome opportunity for open, honest dialogue, constructive disagreement, and effective negotiation. Along with the substantive report of the Working Up process, the group’s members have built working relationships and open channels of communication. Those assets should help strengthen collaboration among worker advocates, employers, and government for the benefit of our economy and society.