Defining the Challenge: Promoting Economic Mobility and Resilience

How do we define economic mobility and economic resilience? That question was top of mind at a recent community development conference I attended. Biannually, Community Development Departments from across the Federal Reserve System convene to discover opportunities for collaboration; this year, we began by discussing the implementation of the System’s new strategic plan. At the heart of the plan is the mission to promote the economic mobility and resilience of underserved and low- and- moderate income (LMI) individuals and communities. This mission is a vast expansion from our beginnings. The Federal Reserve System’s Community Development function was established after the enactment of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act—legislation passed to address redlining practices by financial institutions.1 At that time, the focus of the Community Development function was relatively narrow, with the primary concern being access to credit in LMI neighborhoods. But 40 years has broadened the function’s scope of concern; the focus of work now includes various interrelated issues that impact the economic conditions of underserved and LMI communities.

This year’s conference featured two speakers who challenged us to really understand the mission of the Community Development function and how the work we do supports it. In sharing their views, each speaker explained how she sees economic mobility and economic resilience. Angela Glover Blackwell, founder in residence at PolicyLink, focused on the economic mobility of people and inequality in the United States. Ms. Blackwell discussed some of the past systemic discriminatory policies in the country. Those policies led to some of the inequities we still experience today, such as the lack of economic gains for people of color and for people living in poverty. She noted that inequality has had a profound impact on our nation, and in order for everyone to have a seat at the table, there has to be some recognition that “economic mobility and racism are inextricably linked.” Isabel Beltrán, associate director of resilience finance at 100 Resilient Cities, provided some perspective on how place plays a role in economic resilience. She defined city resilience as the “capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what chronic stresses [e.g., unemployment, persistent poverty, racial segregation] and acute shocks [e.g., layoffs, natural disasters] they experience.”

Listening to the speakers, I was glad to hear they both addressed place in terms of experience and opportunity. Ms. Beltrén talked about how resilient places can decrease the chance of an individual experiencing crime or violence. Ms. Blackwell highlighted that where someone lives has direct influence on the opportunities they have. Economic mobility does not have to mean people move up and out. It can also mean improving neighborhoods and communities where people already are; this, in turn, improves their opportunities.

So how do we get to an inclusive economy wherein LMI individuals and people of color can improve their financial well-being, and neighborhoods thrive while realizing sustainable growth? It takes change in policy and action from various community stakeholders to achieve these desired outcomes. The United States has made strides in correcting discriminatory policies, but we still fall short. Measurable outcomes are important, too, Ms. Blackwell asserted, because a conversation about “equity is a conversation about outcomes.” Economic mobility and resilience have many definitions, and outcomes are not measured consistently across sectors. However, a key factor in addressing the issues is the recognition that economic mobility and economic resilience are hindered by an economy that does not work for everyone. We must look at issues across race, sex, income, and geography to paint a fuller picture of where we are and where we want to be.

  1. A discriminatory practice that denies access to credit for residents in specific neighborhoods or communities based on race and/or economic status. Return