If you’ve ever been a working student trying to make a living to support your family and your education, you’ve probably had moments where one unexpected challenge after another makes you feel that success is impossible. You don’t know how you’ll make it through the next crisis—your car breaking down or your doctor calling with troubling test results. You just can’t handle making one more choice between two bad options: like missing work or missing class when your boss knows your schedule but says they need you to come in, or waiting a few more days to buy your kid a backpack for school or risking your rent check bouncing. The reason all of this feels so impossible, like the deck is stacked against you, is because it’s not just about you and your choices: it’s about the policies, institutional practices, and systems that make it harder for low-wealth people to get ahead. There are so many things out of your control that affect your path to success, like the scheduling system your employer uses, whether or not you are eligible for paid time off, the timing of courses offered by your college, the reliability of public transit, and the availability of financial aid. And those of us who want to improve economic mobility, or to move people from economic stress to stability, need to understand that context when we design programs and policies.

From my window today, I’m looking out at what could be considered a forest (a hedge, really, at the edge of a small woodland), but recent wind and rain have diminished the forest and left me with mostly trees. And since I’m looking for a metaphor for the importance of understanding the context of a system before adopting a programmatic solution, “missing the forest for the trees” came readily to mind, looking at these bare branches and chill blue sky. When it comes to how we shape responses to economic mobility issues—income inequality, school segregation, college completion—we often get so tied up in our focus on individual success (trees) that we lose sight of the impact of community systems of opportunity (forest).

The philosophy behind why you do the work and the current (and, often, the historical) context it’s happening in, matter. Here’s a great example of a philosophy that changes service delivery: LISC Financial Opportunity Centers. The FOCs—in communities across the country—employ an Integrated Services Model—that’s jargon for offering financial coaching and products (like IDAs to make saving more feasible), education and training, and income supports (like public benefits and tax credits) all in one place, in a sequenced flow that helps individuals move from financial stress to survival to stability:

Taken together, these three core services help move low- and moderate-income families along a continuum of improvements aimed at ultimately increasing their net income (monthly cash flow), credit score, long term job retention and net worth.

FOCs want interim milestones, but they are driven by a big end goal: net worth. And more of it for low-wealth families. At an FOC, they don’t stop at helping someone get emergency funds for utility payments to avoid eviction [TREE]. They don’t stop at providing training and support for a new better-paying job [STILL TREE]. They form a long-term relationship that helps their clients build wealth, like home ownership and retirement plans—because financial stability is the forest made up of all those really important trees.

This long-range relationship and a programmatic orientation that moves from stress to survival to stability is key, especially when you consider the extreme disparities in financial stability and wealth creation in the United States. Recent data from the Pew Research Center reveal that the median net worth of for white households ($141,900) is 13 times that of African-American households and 10 times that of Hispanic households. (This staggering gap inspired CFED’s creation of the Racial Wealth Divide Project.) In Umbrellas Don’t Make it Rain: Why Studying and Working Hard Isn’t Enough for Black Americans , scholars from The New School, Duke Center for Social Equity, and Insight Center for Community Economic Development discuss how “an analysis of who holds America’s wealth makes clear how life outcomes can diverge radically, in particular for those subject to systemic historically rooted discrimination [FOREST], which is not related to the amount of personal effort exerted [TREE].” The analysis shows that neither income nor education is an equalizer when it comes to this wealth gap:

  • The wealth gap persists at every income level, and “white families at the lowest end of the income distribution have a higher median wealth than middle-income blacks”

    Umbrellas 2

    Source: Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain

  • The wealth gap also persists at every level of education, and “for families with household heads that have a college degree, the typical white household has $180,500 in wealth while the typical Black household has $23,400”
Umbrellas 1

Source: Umbrellas Don’t Make It Rain

Less wealth mean less stability and more stress and struggle for black families, especially when it comes to investing in education, entrepreneurship, or retirement. The authors recommend a possible intervention—Child Trust Accounts—that would be based on the wealth (not income) of their parents. It’s an example of an intervention that takes into account the history and context of the issue being addressed—a short-term action with a long-term view, like the philosophy at the Financial Opportunity Centers. If we want to see real movement toward more equitable economic outcomes, that’s the kind of growth we need to cultivate.