Economic context

Introducing WorkRise: Building a More Equitable and Resilient Labor Market

Sarah Rosen WartellSeptember 16, 2020

Today, the Urban Institute is launching a major new research-to-action initiative aimed at identifying, testing, and sharing bold ideas for transforming the labor market, so it better provides economic mobility for workers who earn low incomes, especially Black and other people of color, women, and young people. These workers have faced systemic barriers to wage growth, career advancement, and the dignity that comes from having power and autonomy over their own lives and the sense of being valued by their communities. Even as America celebrates its essential workers , we’ve left so many of them at the greatest risk of job loss, wage cuts, illness, and even death from doing their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

WorkRise has its roots in the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, a multiyear collaboration between Urban and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose partners concluded that real economic mobility requires a labor market that allows workers to maximize their skills and talents and rewards them fairly for their efforts. 

Sadly, the pandemic has laid bare the long-standing inequities so many workers face. For too long, barriers to opportunity were treated as the result of individual failure, rather than consequences of historical and structural disadvantages and discriminatory practices: occupational segregation, mass incarceration, discrimination in hiring and promotion, and the decline in union membership and weakening of other forms of worker protections. These forces have led to significant and persistent disparities in earnings and wages (even among workers with higher educational attainment), employment rates, and upward economic and occupational mobility. 

The devastating consequences of the pandemic demand we build back our labor market and our economy for the better—advancing racial and gender equity and providing real pathways to opportunity for young people. In this moment, we see unprecedented experimentation and renewed commitment by local governments, businesses, philanthropies, and service providers to creating equitable access to economic mobility and a better future. There are natural experiments happening across the country, as rebuilding communities embrace innovative policy. Employers are stepping up to create more equitable pathway programs and express unprecedented openness to tearing down structural barriers to opportunity in their firms. Funders and nongovernmental organizations are piloting robust experiments.

Thanks to the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the Walmart Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and other philanthropic partners, WorkRise will fund research on these promising practices, policies, and programs underway across the country, as well as foundational research on labor market trends, to give decisionmakers the evidence they need to accelerate adoption of more equitable and effective policy and practice. WorkRise expects to make approximately $8 million in grants to research partners—based at Urban and other research institutions across the country—to develop evidence on what works.

To ensure the research and evidence created will help changemakers design and refine relevant, practical, and scalable solutions, Urban has assembled an extraordinary group of cross-sectoral leaders to join the WorkRise Leadership Board. The board will guide the project and set the broad project agenda and research priorities. And, to ensure the insights from this robust experimentation are learned quickly and widely, WorkRise will partner with stakeholders across the policy and practice ecosystem to learn from, and inform, their efforts in real time.

WorkRise will be a powerful resource for today’s changemakers who are striving to meet the challenge of economic mobility and racial equity at this historic moment for our country. You can learn more about WorkRise here and stay up to date on our work by subscribing to the WorkRise Insights newsletter.