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Boston taps into data to find sources of economic inequality

Many cities use data to measure the effectiveness of programs and policies, but Boston plans to use its newly created Economic Mobility Lab to study entire systems of programs that are meant to help people move up the economic ladder, find gaps that need to be filled and deploy  programs that address those identified gaps.

After a Brookings Institute analysis of 2014 Census data found Boston was the most economically unequal city in the country, the city took steps toward addressing this inequality with programs like Building Pathways, which helps people get careers, and Operation Exit, which provides job training to those at risk of recidivism. The city has data on the people who go through these programs, including how much they earn now and other relevant data points, but has been unable to determine how these programs relate to each other, other state and federal initiatives and programs from the private sector.

“It’s a big task,” said lab Director Jason Ewas.

Housed in the mayor's office, the cross-agency lab has two goals in its first year. First, Ewas said he wants to compile all data from city programs that help people move up the economic ladder; these will be divided into programs that stabilize households, those that help individuals build wealth, those that help communities build wealth and other categories. Then, the lab will use data and conversations with stakeholders to choose a subgroup to focus on, like single mothers or young people who aren’t employed or in school.

The lab will be looking at data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in addition to other data sources.

Ewas said the lab's analysis could lead to insight that recommends expanding existing programs, starting new pilots or entire new programs. But exactly how these gaps will be found and how the analysis will be done hasn't been determined.

“In terms of how to measure, that is something we’ll have to work on with our team and partners to understand this macro-level evaluation,” he said.

The results will help create "an economic mobility plan that builds off of the City's  Resilience Strategy and Economic Equity and Inclusion Agenda, outlines gaps in the ecosystem using quantitative and qualitative data, and provides concrete steps to address them," according to the mayor's office.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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