The Opportunity Gap: What Your Business Can Do About Social Mobility

The American Dream. It’s a long-held belief that anyone who works hard enough can achieve almost anything in this country.

3 min. read

The American Dream. It’s a long-held belief that anyone who works hard enough can achieve almost anything in this country. Education, influence, financial stability — very little is seen as off limits or unattainable for those who want it and work for it.

But what if the American Dream isn’t as attainable as we think? According to Raj Chetty’s landmark study in 2014, economic and social mobility in the U.S. are at an all-time low. Mobility is measured by the ability of a child to move from poverty to affluence in their lifetime (the bottom income quintile to the top quintile).

Average social mobility in the U.S. is only 7.5% — significantly lower than any other industrialized nation. This means that a child born into poverty in a U.S. community will likely remain in poverty for the rest of their lives.

There are a lot of contributing factors, including education, family stability, segregation, housing and more. The unfortunate reality is that inequality exists in all of our communities, and that not all of our neighbors have access to the same level of opportunities.

In her book Give Work, Leila Janah observes, “Talent is distributed equally, opportunity is not.” This is where the opportunity gap happens. When people living in the same community experience opportunity and success based on the neighborhood where they are born, it’s not good for any of us.

The solutions aren’t obvious or easy. Experts agree that it’s going to take the engagement and innovation of individuals, businesses and community groups working together to effect change. So what can businesses do to help move the needle on a problem that can seem completely overwhelming?

Here are three ways companies of all sizes can help shrink the opportunity gap in their own communities:

#1: Listen

Start by engaging in the economic mobility conversation in your city. Read the research, engage with individual stories and find a range of experiences. Reach out to a nonprofit or school your company is connected to, and ask what their particular challenges are and where they could use help. Type your zip code into this mapping tool and it will show where the opportunity gaps exist in your own community.

Other great resources and reads include The Other Wes Moore and this visual summary of Raj Chetty’s landmark study.

#2: Share your network

One of the biggest barriers in economic mobility is the lack of social capital. Social capital is defined as the bonds and links that network us together to create community. Often, people who grow up in neighborhoods with fewer resources are connected to fewer networks. The less access a person has to affluent networks, the harder time they have gaining access to opportunities.

Think about the contact list in your phone. Who would you call if you needed a babysitter? A job? Help with a project at work? A connection to another business you wanted to work with? Chances are, you could scroll down the list and make connections across your industry and community.

Make an effort to share your network with students and organizations who could use some social capital! Connect with a local nonprofit, offer job shadowing opportunities for students, speak to classes to expose kids to business and tech.

#3: Expand your hiring sources

Most businesses rely on their networks and existing relationships to find good talent. It makes sense — good people tend to know other good people and once you’ve identified a good source, it makes the job easier! But what if we expanded our networks to include new hiring sources and organizations?

Community colleges and smaller colleges in your area are often a wealth of information and can point you to qualified, deserving students. Many nonprofits have job training programs that are turning out amazing candidates, including tech programs. Organizations like PepUp Tech, Year Up and Launch Code are offering high-level training to students who may have barriers to a traditional college education. If we expand hiring practices to include these organizations, then we’ve gained top talent while also extending opportunity to people who wouldn’t necessarily have access.

No matter how you choose to engage, it’s the responsibility of all businesses to contribute to shrinking the divide. It’s not only good for business — it’s good for our communities.