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Delivering Dignity: Using Data to Propel Change and Create Inclusive Economic Growth

Otis Rolley — Former Senior Vice President, Economic Equity Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation

What we choose to measure offers a window into our values. The measurements can be used to take action, to build better systems, and to improve and save lives.

These are guiding lights we carried with us this autumn into our virtual Room 8, focused on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8, the goal of promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth with employment and decent work for all. The effort was part of 17 Rooms, an initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation and The Brookings Institution, first convened in September 2018 to identify the most impactful actions that could be taken in the next 12-18 months to further those SDGs.

Covid-19 was a shock to an already precarious labor market. But amid unprecedented economic and social disruption, the U.S. faces a challenge to rebuild a resilient economy that can deliver dignity: the dignity that accompanies a fair income, security in the workplace, social protection for families and better prospects for personal development.

Part of the work we set for ourselves was to identify a simple and streamlined set of data points to measure investments in employees, and opportunities for workers’ economic mobility.

Some of the data we already know. The U.S. is home to 122 million workers, and before the Covid-19 pandemic, 53 million of them made less than $18,000 on average.

As Dolly Parton belted out in “9 to 5,” which Room 8 played for the group when we did our presentation, “what a way to make a livin’. Barely gettin’ by; it’s all takin’ and no givin’.”

Workers of color and women are far more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than white workers.

In 2017, according to the Economic Policy Institute

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that some 34 percent of the labor force is comprised of gig workers, projecting that to increase to 43 percent by this year, and the gig economy leaves many workers without benefits or upward mobility.

Investment in employee training and development, meanwhile, has been declining for decades, and firms are not incentivized to invest in workers. This means that when they change jobs, low-wage workers are unlikely to see any meaningful increase in wages.

Some of the metrics we would like to see gain widespread use over the next year include the number of jobs created during a reporting period, broken down by demographic groups, and the average expenditure and hours of training per person that a firm offers.

  • 8.6%

    of white workers were paid poverty wages—i.e., hourly wages that would leave them below the federal poverty guideline for their family size if they are the sole earner in the family, even if they work full-time, year-round.

  • 19.2%

    of latinx workers or nearly one in five were paid poverty wages, in contrast

  • 14.3%

    of black workers or roughly one in seven were paid poverty wages

Data can be seductive, but we don’t want data for its own sake; we want data that translates into action. We hope our work will lead to at least six key metrics that when applied to firms, can increase the number and quality of jobs accessible to workers as well as boost internal mobility.

Building off of the Business for Racial Equity Pledge created by the Leadership Now Project, we are proposing a coalition of trailblazing firms, organizations, and policymakers that are ready to get their hands dirty when it comes to growing good jobs and opportunity.

As we continue this work beyond 17 Rooms, join us in revolutionizing how we measure progress toward inclusive growth and decent employment to help low wage workers.

Path to Equitable Recovery

The Rockefeller Foundation recognizes the potential to lose hard-fought progress on the SDGs because of this pandemic and is determined to join others during UNGA to prevent that from happening. Learn more about the work that we are doing with grantees and partners to help achieve the Global Goals.

17 Rooms

Convening 17 disparate specialist communities to identify – in parallel and in concert – high-impact actions that can be taken to improve SDG outcomes

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