The so-called “American dream” of upward mobility has more or less stagnated: Today, a little more than 40 percent of children raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain there as adults, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, and only half grow up to earn more than their parents.
This data points to a concerning trend that’s taken root over the last 40 years: growing income inequality, which in many cases is rooted in racial disparity.
“American wealth has become highly concentrated—the wealthiest are overwhelmingly white, while the poorest are overwhelmingly Black, Latino and Native American,” reads “Power in Partnerships: How City-County Collaborations Advance Economic Mobility,” a report that was published this year by the advocacy firm Results 4 America. While reversing this trend will require “major reforms at the state and federal levels,” there are some things cities and counties can do to “improve the lives of residents by working together, and especially by leveraging federal, state and regional funding opportunities.”
Primarily, these goals are achieved through collaboration on key areas like housing and early childhood education.
“Collaboration is crucial because the systemic nature of poverty and inequality, and the interconnectedness of regional economies, makes siloed efforts less effective,” the report says. The timing of the research is notable because, with the recent passage of the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (both of which contain incentives to encourage cross-jurisdictional collaboration), communities stand to benefit from regional ties.
To that end, the report highlights nine areas that are “ripe for city-county collaboration,” including affordable housing, serving transient populations like youth and unhoused people, workforce development, digital inclusion and broadband access, childcare, transportation, climate change mitigation, infrastructure development and procurement.
When working toward a shared goal, it’s imperative that cities and counties make a mutual commitment, open up lines of communication, dedicate staff and resources to the effort, create clear accountability structures, and rely on strong leaders and data systems.
Above all, fostering strong partnerships between city and county leaders and their organizations is vital for achieving success in the long run.
“Most successful city-county collaborations take years to accomplish what they set out to achieve. Moreover, collaboratives often do not have a clear endpoint, as partners realize that through continued collaboration they can achieve greater impacts,” the report says.
Another potentially important part of strong city-county partnerships are third-party organizations that can act as an intermediary (they can span mechanical differences in governing, unify disparate goals, and create otherwise unobtainable funding streams). This could look like a nonprofit raising private dollars for a mutual cause, a consultant brought in to train staff members in both organizations, a contractor selected to administer a joint initiative, or a chamber of commerce that’s overseeing a project that both jurisdictions have stake in .
Strong collaborations are important because of the many challenges city-county projects face. For one, fragmented organizations and competing priorities can jeopardize initiatives before they launch. Other barriers include low community support, a lack of engagement from key groups, unfriendly policies, limited funding and overly bureaucratic systems.
To overcome these hurdles, long term partnerships between organizations, which extend beyond political terms and leaders’ tenure, are key.
As cities and counties reopen following the pandemic, they stand to benefit from continued collaboration that might have started with vaccine drives and economic stimulus initiatives. And with the infusion of federal dollars via the Rescue Plan and infrastructure package, “cities and counties face an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration. Local governments owe it to their residents to work together to bolster existing regional systems to better support those from low-income communities to achieve economic stability and upward mobility,” the report says. “The economic mobility for all is central to the American Dream and can only be realized through the development of strong programs and policies that address the underlying structural barriers that prevent individuals from low-income communities, which disproportionately comprise people of color, from moving up .”