HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Isabelle and Scott Black Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus


Mobility is the American dream. It is the foundational promise of the nation: through initiative and hard work, anyone can rise from poverty and succeed. Both anecdote and scholarship show unequivocally that at least some people from all walks of life do get ahead and thrive. The American dream also contains an implicit assumption that mobility is readily available regardless of the circumstances of one’s birth, and that such mobility is more common in the United States than in other nations. Sadly, research shows that the United States is not particularly strong on upward mobility for those born at the lower end of the income distribution. The odds of economic advancement differ considerably based on family, race, neighborhood, and other factors. For example, a study from the Brookings Institution showed that the majority of African American children raised in families in the bottom 20 percent of family income did not escape that income category as adults. (More than three-quarters of comparably defined poor white children escaped.) This overview paper broadly outlines the types of strategies being used to help people move up from poverty. It lays out basic categories for classifying such programs, explains the logic of various approaches, and offers some broad pros and cons of various types of interventions. The accompanying paper, Building Blocks and Strategies for Helping Americans Move Out of Poverty, provides a much more detailed discussion, including examples of some well-regarded programs in each category (Bogle et al. 2016). Readers should recognize that in this report, we do not evaluate the alternatives, rank them, or recommend a specific strategy; that work should come later. Rather, this report serves as a road map for those thinking about ways to significantly increase mobility from poverty.


Ellwood, David. "Creating Mobility from Poverty." The US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, August 2016.