USC Price School of Public Policy

James Shelton of Chan Zuckerberg Initiative speaks on preserving American Dream

February 8, 2017

James Shelton, President for Education, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Photo by Steve Cohn)

By Susan Wampler

Is the American dream of upward mobility on life support, as many fear? On January 25, The USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy welcomed James H. Shelton, President for Education of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the former Deputy Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama, alongside colleagues Deborah Bielak and Devin Murphy of the Bridgespan Group, to share research and insights on overcoming social and economic barriers to success.

Their talk, “Preserving and Protecting the American Dream: The Role and Responsibility of Philanthropy,” was the latest installment of The Center’s Conversations on Philanthropy series, now in its seventh year.

Upon leaving the administration, Shelton was invited to lead a team of researchers with the Bridgespan Group, a global nonprofit advisory firm, to tackle any challenge he chose. The result was the report Billion Dollar Bets to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American, which Shelton co-authored with Bielak and Murphy.

The team’s research aimed to illustrate how philanthropic investments of $1 billion might improve the lifetime earnings of millions of low-income Americans and reverse the 30-year trend of stagnant social mobility.

“A billion dollars seems like a lot of money, but the reality is it’s not that much in the grand scheme,” Shelton said. By comparison, he pointed out that “$650 billion is spent on K-12 education every single year.”

Shelton with Deborah Bielak and Devin Murphy of the Bridgespan Group (Photo by Steve Cohn)

Drawing from extensive research that included dozens of interviews with experts and practitioners, Shelton, Bielak, and Murphy mapped the most important targets that must be hit for individuals to achieve economic mobility. They also examined interventions that have already proven to be successful, as well as newly implemented strategies for building pathways to the middle class.

They arrived at four overarching areas for investment: building people’s skills and assets, confronting the cultural and structural obstacles in their way, transforming segregated and impoverished neighborhoods, and building infrastructure to implement effective programs and scale them for maximum impact.

After putting a call out to the philanthropic community that garnered numerous concept papers, the team worked with an advisory board to choose 15 “big bets” to address these issues. From those, they chose six to focus on more deeply: improving early childhood development, paving clear and viable career pathways, decreasing incarceration, reducing unintended pregnancies, easing the effects of concentrated poverty in distressed neighborhoods, and improving the performance of social services.

While the report pays special attention to minorities who have been historically discriminated against, Shelton explained, “When you focus on specific populations, you end up with insights that apply to the general population as well.”

Despite the resources that have been spent by philanthropists and government, Shelton observed, “the reality is that we have not organized ourselves” to be collaborative enough in solving this seemingly intractable problem. Instead, he said, “We consistently expand programs [with] no evidence that they actually work.”

A lot of the hurdles reverberate from past discrimination, he noted. For example, Shelton recalled attending a learning session at the Gates Foundation that featured a demographer who made the point that “a lot of the structural benefits” aimed at creating wealth in this country, such as mortgages, retirement programs, and the GI Bill, excluded African-Americans from taking part. As a result, even over generations, many people start out behind and “can’t catch up.”

The good news, according to Shelton, is that we do know the milestones people must reach to achieve success in life. They include: acceptable early literacy, math skills, and school-appropriate behavior in early childhood; basic reading, math, and social skills by middle childhood; a high school diploma with at least a 2.5 grade-point average by late adolescence; and a college degree or a family income of $45,000 by the end of their 20s. Unfortunately, too many low-income children fall behind on each milestone, with only 17 percent meeting all of them.

The bets may be big, but the potential jackpots are vast. The team estimates that targeted investments in programs that are already achieving demonstrable results — as well as in promising concepts with high probabilities of success — could potentially deliver returns of $3 to $15 for every $1 invested.

As Shelton and Bielak wrote in an article based on the report in The Atlantic, “The cost of the status quo — three decades of stagnant mobility — is far too high for inaction. And the promise of the American Dream is far too great to not bet on it.”


The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information: Please contact Gregg Millward, Senior Director of Development, The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at gmillwar@usc.edu or 213-740-1776.