Last week at our inaugural Poverty Solutions Conference, we began an experiment.

In partnership with the Russell Sage Foundation, Robin Hood assembled a group of preeminent academics, government officials, and leaders from nonprofits, philanthropies, and businesses to tackle poverty’s most pressing challenges. But unlike other conferences, this one was focused on sparking innovative, fundable, and implementable ideas for reducing poverty.

At the conference, four leading scholars — Raj Chetty, Matthew Desmond, Caroline Hoxby, and Sendhil Mullainathan — presented their latest findings on upward mobility in low-income neighborhoods, eviction, education, and data science. Attendees then worked in small groups to translate these ideas into concrete interventions that funders like Robin Hood could support.

Here are some of the key ideas that emerged:

1) The same mechanism that powers Netflix can be used to fight poverty.

Enormous advances in computer technology and data analytics have yielded powerful tools with nearly infinite potential. Yet they have been almost entirely used for commercial purposes rather than tackling poverty, criminal justice, or other pressing challenges.

Essentially, the same principles and algorithms that allow Netflix to parse through movie reviews to determine what a viewer would like to watch, can be adapted to any number of uses including predicting who is most likely to fall into homelessness, helping first-generation college students choose classes, or identifying households with a high risk for repeat domestic violence incidents. The key requirements are large data sets and a single, clear predictable outcome.

Watch Professor Sendhil Mullainathan explain how the technology works and offer a test case.

2) We can revive the American Dream by helping low-income families move to low-poverty neighborhoods and by making targeted investments in high-poverty neighborhoods.

Upward mobility is determined by differences in childhood environment. A long-term study found that when low-income families with children use housing vouchers to move to low-poverty, high-opportunity areas, the children fared much better as adults.

A deeper dive into the data revealed two important points. There are neighborhoods that are “opportunity bargains,” places with relatively low rents that offer strong social supports, community institutions, good schools, and opportunities for kids. For instance, in New York City, it wouldn’t be economically feasible to move everyone from East New York to Park Slope or the Upper East Side, but neighborhoods like Wakefield in the Bronx offer many of the same benefits without the high rents.

The other revelation is that you can create the same environmental factors that spur upward mobility in high-opportunity areas in low-income, low-opportunity neighborhoods. Research shows that high-opportunity neighborhoods were more diverse and had a larger middle class, good schools, and strong community institutions. By investing in low-income neighborhoods and bolstering supports, you can create a high-opportunity neighborhood.

Professor Raj Chetty, who authored the study, provides a window into his research here.

3) Evictions are not just a symptom of poverty, but also a driver of poverty.

Wait lists for public housing are decades long and two-thirds of low-income families who rent receive no housing assistance, so the vast majority of those in need are subject entirely to the unforgiving forces of the private rental market. As a result, evictions are all too common. A study in Milwaukee found that one in five African American mothers has been evicted at least once in their lifetime.

Professor Matthew Desmond, Harvard University

With housing costs rising and wages stagnant, low-income families have no safety net. The majority of low-income families spend at least 50 percent of their income on rent, leaving little for utilities, food, or other necessities. In addition, domestic violence is a significant cause of eviction, as landlords often use noise complaints and 911 calls as grounds for eviction.

Matt Desmond, a professor of sociology at Harvard and author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” explained that once evicted, a vicious cycle begins and families tend to live in worse and worse housing. Evictions are a permanent blemish on an individual’s record that makes it harder to get approved for an apartment or even public housing. This, in turn, makes it more difficult to find housing, creates further instability, and exacerbates existing problems with employment, health, mental health, debt, and more.

4) Good schools are vital to future opportunity

While charter schools have proven effective in raising student achievement, these gains must be applied more broadly, especially to schools in low-income neighborhoods. As noted in Professor Chetty’s research, good schools are a key driver of upward mobility, but low-income neighborhoods have a disproportionate number of low-performing schools. However, the exception is charter schools.

A study by Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford economics professor, found that on average low-income charter school students outperformed their peers at district schools on standardized tests in New York City. A student who attended a charter school for all of elementary and middle school would close about 86 percent of the achievement gap in math and 66 percent in English.

Professor Caroline Hoxby, Stanford University

Hoxby identified several key factors that were responsible for increased performance at charters including a longer school year, a mission that emphasizes academic performance, and teacher pay based on performance. As effective as charter schools may be, they only serve 10 percent of New York City students, or roughly 100,000 out of 1.1 million. So applying best practices from charter schools to improve district schools will be critical to expanding opportunities in low-income neighborhoods.

5) Process matters. Bring people together from diverse backgrounds to break out of silos and come up with novel ideas.

Poverty is a complex issue that manifests itself in numerous ways, often simultaneously. Any attempts to address it requires a number of solutions that relate to housing, education, job training, government benefits, and more. By design, the conference featured small group discussions that brought together individuals from diverse backgrounds to inspire innovation and connect the dots between their work, so they could generate novel ways to translate ideas into action.

Christine Quinn, President and CEO of Women in Need (WIN) and Robert Doar, the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute

In the coming weeks, we will issue a request for proposals that expands on concepts that emerged during discussions. Promising proposals will receive a planning grant and an opportunity to seek additional implementation funding later in the year.

This conference was an experiment and we do not yet know what will come of it. But one thing is clear: we must do something to help the 43 million Americans living in poverty. We must bring together diverse perspectives and talents in order to find creative ways to change the status quo.

Thank you!

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