How Your City Can Boost Economic Mobility and Opportunity

Highlighting practical and accessible steps city leaders can take to help individuals and families meet their basic needs and move up the economic ladder, NLC President Matt Zone challenges every NLC member city to take action and sign a pledge to increase economic mobility and opportunity for their residents in 2017.

NLC President and Cleveland, Ohio, Councilmember Matt Zone announces his Economic Mobility and Opportunity Task Force at the City Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 21, 2016. (NLC)

This is the third post in a series highlighting NLC’s 2017 Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., March 11-15.

Cities can’t wait. That’s true in so many areas where federal or state help is stymied by partisan gridlock or ideological differences. But mayors and other city leaders don’t have the option of doing nothing in the face of local challenges. They have to step up – and taking steps to expand economic mobility and opportunity is a great example of what’s possible.

At NLC’s 2017 Congressional City Conference this week, NLC President Matt Zone issued a bold challenge to NLC membership: he asked every one of the more than 2,000 city officials and community partners in attendance to commit to one action that will help local residents share in the nation’s prosperity. This challenge builds upon President Zone’s creation of an Economic Mobility and Opportunity Task Force when he assumed his NLC leadership role in November 2016.

Last fall’s elections offered a striking reminder that millions of financially strained families across America feel they are forgotten, cast aside in an economy that no longer needs their skills or contributions. Growing economic disparities highlight that families need access to well-paying jobs, affordable housing and stable incomes in their pursuit of the American Dream. These challenges are a key concern for city leaders because the financial health of every community depends on economic mobility and opportunity for its residents.

That’s why members of the Economic Mobility and Opportunity Task Force – from Atlanta Mayor and Task Force Chair Kasim Reed and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh to elected leaders from smaller cities such as Mayor Johnny DuPree of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Councilmember Deana Holiday Ingraham of East Point, Georgia – have already pledged to take action in their cities.

President Zone’s action challenge highlights practical and accessible steps city leaders can take in four key areas to help individuals and families meet their basic needs and move up the economic ladder. They include:

Boost Working Families’ Incomes — Promote and Help Residents Claim the Earned Income Tax Credit

City officials can use their “bully pulpit” and other city communication mechanisms to promote the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) widely and inform residents about where they can obtain free tax preparation services. Most communities have a VITA (Voluntary Income Tax Assistance) program in which IRS-certified volunteers provide free tax return preparation for low- and moderate-income families at community organizations or other sites around the city. Some cities offer VITA sites directly in municipal buildings such as city hall or public libraries.

Strengthen Residents’ Financial Capability – Expand Access to Financial Education and Coaching

In many communities, financial education, coaching and counseling services are available through community organizations, credit counseling agencies, local universities, and other entities. Too often, however, city residents do not know where or how to access these services. Cities can play important roles in coordinating the efforts of local providers and using diverse communications and outreach vehicles to promote available offerings, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

Provide New Options for Families in Debt – Implement Win-Win City Debt Collection Strategies

Cities have a unique – and often missed – opportunity to reach struggling residents by examining payment patterns of residents in debt to the city and considering payment collection strategies that financially empower families rather than impose harsh penalties for nonpayment.

The National League of Cities worked with five cities to implement Local Interventions for Financial Empowerment Through Utility Payments (LIFT-UP), a program that identified residents in debt to the cities’ water utilities and connected them to financial counseling to help them pay back the debt. In Houston, the city’s water department partnered with community organizations to train utility employees to provide financial coaching to residents with missed utility payments and work with them to develop a payment plan. The program resulted in more frequent payments and lower balances.

Expand Job Access and Pathways of Opportunity – Use City Hiring and Contracting Policies to Assist Residents in Distressed Neighborhoods

Cities can increase employment among residents considered “hard to employ” through strategic and equitable hiring and contracting policies. By targeting hiring for municipal jobs to residents from distressed neighborhoods or other high-need populations, cities can meet local employment goals and diversify their workforce. Local “first source” policies and community benefit agreements require companies that contract with city government to hire a certain percentage of city residents who meet established criteria. Community benefit agreements can also require developers to offer training and apprenticeship programs for unemployed residents.

Mayors, city councilmembers and other city officials can pledge here to participate in the action challenge by choosing to take at least one of the action steps listed above and completing a simple online form. Experienced staff from NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families and its Center for City Solutions are available to assist cities in implementing the policy and program changes associated with these actions.

Cities can’t wait – and neither can the struggling families who live in them. Now is the time for city leaders to act to expand economic mobility and opportunity for their residents and, in the process, strengthen the economic vitality of their communities.

Learn more about the Local Action Challenge for Economic Mobility and Opportunity.

Join NLC on the following dates for a webinar series designed to help cities kick-start their efforts to fulfill the economic mobility and opportunity pledge:

  • Friday, March 24 at 2:00 p.m. EST:  Boost Working Families’ Incomes – Promote and Help Residents Claim the Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Thursday, March 30 at 2:00 p.m. EST: Strengthen Residents’ Financial Capability – Expand Access to Financial Education and Coaching
  • Thursday, April 6 at 2:00 p.m. EST: Provide New Options for Families in Debt – Implement Win-Win City Debt Collection Strategies
  • Thursday, April 13 at 2:00 p.m. EST: Expand Job Access and Pathways of Opportunity – Use City Hiring and Contracting Policies to Assist Residents in Distressed Neighborhoods

Registration information for this webinar series will be available early next week.

About the author: Clifford Johnson is the Executive Director of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Achievement Gaps, Racial Equity and the Challenges of Family Engagement

Communities can succeed in ensuring that all students achieve their full potential when parents and families are fully engaged as partners and allies.

2 girls reading_122414217

Earlier this month, I had the chance to spend two days in Madison, Wisconsin with Mayor Paul Soglin, his senior staff and a variety of key community partners who are working to close opportunity gaps and expand out-of-school time learning across the city.

An early afternoon meeting in Mayor Soglin’s office was half tutorial, half search for answers to vexing questions. Bar graphs flashed across a large, wall-mounted screen, the starting point for a probing discussion of how both white and African American households have fared in Madison and the surrounding county after the Great Recession, and the role that the city’s Neighborhood Resource Teams may have played in recent economic gains. A line graph sparked an energetic conversation about the role that the closure of a local community health center may have played in a sharp upturn in infant mortality among African Americans.

A common thread in the discussion was the attention to racial disparities. Madison has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation between white and African American, Latino and Asian students, a crisis that weighs heavily on the conscience and self-image of this progressive community. Race to Equity, a local effort dedicated to closing these gaps, helps keep the issue and key data at the forefront of city deliberations.

 One key part of the city’s strategy to address its achievement gap, and the critical opportunity gaps that fuel its persistence, was on display the next day in a community conversation hosted by the City of Madison in partnership with NLC and the U.S. Department of Education. The Saturday event, sponsored by the Madison Out-of-School Time (MOST) initiative and held at a local Boys and Girls Club, drew a crowd of more than 100 participants, including Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, Dane County Human Services Director Lynn Green, representatives of community-based organizations and a diverse group of parents and other neighborhood residents.

I greatly appreciated the chance to speak to the group, underscoring the important role that Mayor Soglin has played in NLC’s Mayor’s Education Reform Task Force and the potential for mayoral leadership in expanding learning opportunities for all children. Eddie Martin, Special Assistant for the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education, emphasized Secretary Arne Duncan’s commitment to supporting city-school collaborations that seek to improve public schools and close achievement gaps.

The central message of the day, however, was that Madison can succeed in its efforts to ensure that all students achieve their full potential only if all segments of the community – and most importantly parents and families – are fully engaged as partners and allies. The community conversation organized by Mayor Soglin represented a key first step in that direction.


About the Author: Clifford M. Johnson is the Executive Director of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

The YEF Institute: An Exciting New Chapter in NLC’s Leadership on Policy and Best Practice

This is the sixth post in NLC’s 90th Anniversary series.


For decades, one of the hallmarks of the National League of Cities’ work has been a sharp and sustained focus on policy and best practice. Mayors, city councilmembers and other city leaders have come to NLC as a place of ideas – a place to debate key policy issues and to learn about what’s working (and what’s not) in communities across the nation.

With the launch of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) in 2000, NLC added another chapter to this long legacy and an exciting, groundbreaking dimension to its portfolio of resources and offerings. As originally envisioned by former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the founding chair of NLC’s Council on Youth, Education, and Families, the YEF Institute serves as an “action tank” rather than a “think tank” as it helps municipal leaders address the needs of children, youth and families in their own communities. The YEF Institute works in five core program areas:  education and afterschool, early childhood, youth development, the safety of youth, and family economic success.

It’s hard to overstate the pivotal role that Mayor Menino played in the Institute’s creation.  By the end of his first term in office, he was already attracting national attention for his efforts to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. His efforts to quell youth violence – dubbed “the Boston Miracle” when more than two years passed in the mid-1990’s without a single youth homicide in the city – contributed greatly to the stream of city officials heading to Boston’s City Hall in search of guidance and advice. The Mayor was flattered by the attention, but also knew that he and his staff could not possibly serve as the “go-to” place on best practice for the entire country.

In response, Mayor Menino spent two years leading an NLC task force to examine the topic, developing the concept of an Institute focused on children and families, and raising start-up funds to ensure that the effort got off the ground. It simply would not have happened without his leadership and hard work.

And what a difference the YEF Institute has made. Over the course of 14 years, it has provided practical help and advice to hundreds of cities of all sizes and in every region of the United States. The YEF Institute has grown from an idea to a staff of 25, an expansion made possible by a strong reputation and track record that has attracted cumulative investments of more than $42 million from national foundations and other sources.

So much work remains to be done. The challenges facing mayors and other city leaders are enormous, and they have been exacerbated by a pattern of retrenchment and funding cuts at both federal and state levels. Municipal leaders largely understand that they will have to find or craft their own solutions within their communities, in many instances relying only upon existing resources.

That’s why it’s more important than ever for city officials to build upon lessons learned, replicating or adapting successful approaches while doing everything they can to avoid repeating mistakes that have already been made elsewhere.

I’m so excited and honored to be a part of this new chapter in NLC’s proud and storied history. New and emerging work in areas of health, early learning, postsecondary success, financial inclusion and connecting children to nature will keep the YEF Institute at the cutting edge of municipal initiatives that seek to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. And success in improving these outcomes is a key ingredient for the continued strength and vitality of America’s cities and towns in the years ahead.

CJohnson_Headshot_HiResAbout the Author: Clifford Johnson is the Executive Director of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Answering the Call to “Save our Sons”

Standing with leaders and advocates committed to black male achievement, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan gives remarks at Preservation Park on the need for cities to develop effective strategies to improve life outcomes for young men of color.

Standing with leaders and advocates committed to black male achievement, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan gives remarks at Preservation Park on the need for cities to develop effective strategies to improve life outcomes for young men of color.

As teams from 11 cities across the nation gathered in Oakland last week to share ideas on how to improve life outcomes for young black men and boys, energy and commitment levels were high. Following President Obama’s launch of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, the room buzzed with a palpable sense that the stars were finally aligning for a serious push to promote black male achievement in communities throughout America.

The participating cities have been developing local plans and building diverse coalitions during the past year under a technical assistance project sponsored by the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities (NLC) with generous support from the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for Black Male Achievement and in collaboration with PolicyLink. Selected by NLC through a competitive RFP process, the cities include: Charlottesville, VA; Chicago; Fort Wayne, IN; Jacksonville, FL; Louisville, KY; Milwaukee, WI; Oakland, CA; Omaha, NE; Orlando, FL; Philadelphia; and Portland, OR.

Underneath the excitement in Oakland, however, was a recognition of the huge challenge that lies ahead and the importance, as expressed by many of the young men who were part of the city teams, of “keeping it real.” For me, that means being brutally honest – with ourselves and with others – about the changes in public policies and systems that will be needed to achieve lasting and measurable results for our young black men and boys, who face disproportionately high risks of school failure, joblessness, incarceration, and violence-related death.

I found myself thinking about how easy it is to enter a zone of wishful thinking, to put our energies into events or activities that engender good feelings but don’t yield enough of a change in the circumstances of young black men and boys to boost their future prospects. If we hope to “move the needle” in key areas such as education, safety, work, and family for this vulnerable group, we need sustained interventions that are both significant enough to create real opportunity for the individuals they touch and are implemented at sufficient scale to yield gains that are seen and felt across the community. As Eric Wilson, executive director of the Oakland Housing Authority said to me in describing the task ahead, “We’ve just got to stop doing programs for 30 kids … that’s not going to get us there.”

So what’s the alternative? I believe we need to pay greater attention to the “red flags” that already tell us when children and youth are in trouble and marshal the resources to respond more forcefully to those warning signs. In the earliest years of life, serious health problems or developmental delays can be detected through early screenings and low levels of school readiness are documented upon entry to kindergarten. For school-age children and youth, chronic absence (missing more than 10 or 15 days of school), failure to read proficiently by the end of third grade, truancy or disciplinary problems in middle school, and behavior that results in early contact with law enforcement serve as additional indicators that young black men and boys are struggling or losing their way.

Each of these “red flags” represents a potential point of intervention for cities that are seeking to boost black male achievement. They also give us a way of sharpening and narrowing our focus – to decide what we will do first, second, and third – and in the process to be clear about the results we are seeking and the indicators that will tell us whether we are moving that needle.

The resources that will ultimately be needed to make a difference will be large, and they will be won only through tough choices and inevitable battles over local, state, and national priorities. With budget outlooks in many cities improving, do new funds go for more police on the streets or more help for young black men and boys who are trying to get back on track and redirect their lives? As Ron Davis, director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the U.S. Department of Justice reminded the group during his keynote address in Oakland, we need to strike a balance between these competing demands while recognizing that no city is going to arrest or prosecute its way out of the problem. We desperately need more pathways to education, work, and opportunity.

I was struck by the recent news coverage of the couple with two young children who issued a distress call when their sailboat became stranded in the middle of the Pacific and their one-year-old grew seriously ill. Some criticized the parents’ judgment, but no one questioned the need to rescue them at sea. In contrast, the SOS calls that we witness every day – as reflected in the “red flags” already apparent to so many in our communities – all too often go unanswered. Those of us committed to improving life outcomes for young black men and boys must find ways to heighten the sense of urgency surrounding their plight. We have a moral obligation, as individuals and as a nation, to mount a rescue mission for them as well.

About the Author: Clifford  Johnson is the Executive Director of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at NLC.

Losing a Youth Development Icon

I know that some municipal officials devote their entire lives to public service.  In Boston, Tom Menino has served as mayor for nearly 20 years, and spent almost a decade before that as a member of the City Council.  Richard Daley dominated Chicago’s City Hall and political life for a generation, as his father had done in an earlier era.  And Joseph Riley in Charleston, S.C., has surely earned the moniker of “mayor for life,” first elected in 1975 and now entering his 38th year in office.

Most people who work within city government, however, follow a somewhat different path.  Many develop skills and expertise in community-based groups or other nonprofit organizations, often grappling with the most practical and challenging problems at the neighborhood level.  Their knowledge and commitment lead them to city hall, taking on roles that enable them to pursue citywide reforms.  Through their innovations, they make a lasting difference in their cities and then often move on, in many cases becoming champions for important causes at the state or national level.

Such was the path followed by Richard Murphy, former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Youth Services in the early 1990s, who became one of the nation’s leading experts and guiding lights on youth development.  As the head of several national nonprofits, Richard was a source of inspiration and wisdom for me and the National League of Cities, serving on NLC’s Council on Youth, Education, and Families since 2000.  Now we will have to find our way forward without him – Richard was taken from us by a fast-moving cancer on February 14, leaving behind a wonderful legacy of accomplishment and a vast network of admirers who are mourning his loss.

Richard’s journey in the field of youth development began in the neighborhoods of New York City.  At the top of his resume, Richard referenced a chance encounter with a nine-year-old boy at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the South Bronx and said that the boy’s answer to a simple question – Why aren’t you in school? – launched him on his lifelong quest to expand opportunities for disadvantaged children and youth.

He spent the next two decades as the founder and director of a community-based organization, the Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, with the mission of securing educational access and success for elementary school truants.  Through Rheedlen, Richard established new funding streams for preventive and school-based social services, while also leading the redesign – long before such efforts were in vogue – of a low-performing junior high school into four small high schools (the first new high schools in Harlem in 40 years).  The seeds he planted at Rheedlen continued to bear fruit long after his departure as the organization evolved and grew into what we know today as the Harlem Children’s Zone.

But Richard didn’t stop there.  In 1990, he responded to the call of public service by agreeing to serve as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ commissioner of youth services.  At the height of concerns about crime and violence in the city, Richard knew that part of the solution had to be about opportunities for the constructive engagement of young people during out-of-school time.  His visionary leadership led to the creation, as part of the Mayor’s Safe City, Safe Streets initiative, of the first Beacon Schools that opened school doors beyond the traditional 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. school day.   The Beacon School model has since been replicated in major cities across America, including Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

When the Dinkins Administration came to a close, Richard moved to Washington, D.C., and quickly made a major impact on the national scene as director of the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research at what was then the Academy for Educational Development.  He championed the concept of community youth mapping and the replication of community schools, maintaining a relentless focus on building the capacity of local leaders to improve youth outcomes.

In the last years of his life, Richard returned to New York where he promoted access to nutritious food and adequate income, including the development of the nation’s largest Earned Income Tax Credit outreach and tax preparation effort.  Most recently, he devoted most of his time and energies to an ambitious effort focused on “iMapping America,” seeking to harness emerging technologies and what he termed the “collective intelligence of young people” to guarantee all children and youth access to safe and accurate information to make better decisions.

Much will be done and written in the coming months to honor Richard Murphy’s life and contributions to the field of youth development.  He accomplished a great deal, and he also had a wonderful spirit and a huge heart that was apparent to and treasured by so many who had the honor and the joy of working with him.  Richard never lost his sense of optimism, and his belief that we can always make the world a better place for our children and youth.  It’s a spirit and commitment that can serve as an enduring guide for all of us who work on behalf of cities.

To learn more about Richard Murphy’s life and accomplishments, see the New York Times obituary published on February 17, 2013.