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Economic Security

READ THE STORIES: Advancing Local Housing Solutions in the U.S. | Uncovering Career Trajectories that Pay Off | Transforming Cambodia’s Horticulture Market | Catalyzing Finance for Women-Owned Enterprises


Advancing Local Housing Solutions in the U.S.

Despite its importance, local housing policy in the U.S. has historically received far less attention than federal housing policy (which involves federal support for home mortgages, tax credits, and large housing subsidy programs). But as housing affordability and homelessness reach crisis proportions, the policies set by local officials will be critical to implementing effective solutions. For example, city zoning codes influence the overall supply of housing by specifying how many homes developers can build on a lot. Cities and counties use tactics ranging from tax abatements to general obligation bonds to promote affordable housing.

Until recently, local policymakers lacked guidance on how to navigate the complex array of local housing policy options. Abt Associates and the NYU Furman Center sought to address this gap by creating LocalHousingSolutions.org. The website, launched in 2018, provides in-depth guidance on how to develop strategies to enhance housing affordability and foster inclusive communities. These original videos illustrate the content available on the website.

Driving Awareness about Affordable Housing Policy

The website built on the work of the National Community of Practice on Local Housing Policy, a two-year process Abt and NYU initiated in 2015. A 14-member group of experts, with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation, met intensively over two years to develop a framework to help local officials make sense of scores of local housing policies.

Local Housing Solutions Policy Framework and Housing Needs Assessment Tool

Today, LocalHousingSolutions.org is the leading source of information on local housing policy in the U.S., with local officials across the country using it to learn about housing policy options and develop strategies. In a six-month period ending March 31, 2022, the site had 102,919 users who viewed 184,828 pages. The site contains in-depth briefs discussing more than 90 local housing policies, briefs on how to develop a local housing strategy, and a housing needs assessment tool. It also has case studies on everything from Boulder County’s regional housing partnership and addressing legacy resident displacement in Atlanta, to building wealth for renters in Cincinnati and eliminating single-family zoning in Minneapolis.

Among the many topic-specific briefs, the site examines how state policies constrain local housing options; some states preempt local officials from adopting policies such as inclusionary zoning or refuse to authorize its use. The site also discusses how to engage community members for input and feedback on a city’s housing strategy.

While access to actionable information is critical, just as important is the formation of peer networks for lesson sharing, co-creation, and momentum generation. Abt, NYU, and Bloomberg Associates used funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies to facilitate a peer network of 10 large cities that met monthly to share information on addressing racial equity and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In designing their own emergency rental assistance programs to help families affected by COVID-19, for example, many participating cities benefited from the lessons learned from San Antonio’s early pilot program. San Antonio used grassroots organizations and churches to conduct outreach to qualifying families and resolved legal questions about how to serve immigrant families in need. In addition, working groups met to discuss housing stability, housing preservation and production, and homelessness.

Though the funding for the peer network ended after 2021, the relationships have endured. City officials continue to seek each other out for assistance and contact Abt and NYU with information requests. We direct the officials to colleagues in other cities who can help, increasing the chances that this mutual aid network of practitioners can help each other develop effective local housing policies for their cities and residents.

PROJECT: Robert Wood Johnson Housing Lab II
CLIENT: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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Uncovering Career Trajectories that Pay Off

Many employment and training programs focus not just on how to help individuals get a job, but on how to help them enter occupations with higher pay. In recent years, policymakers, practitioners, and funders have promoted “career pathways” programs that combine training with a range of supports to enable workers to progress along a series of education and training steps in an industry or sector. Career pathways approaches have become an important strategy to help workers in lower-wage jobs advance economically.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) sponsored the Descriptive and Analytical Career Pathways Project, which conducted several studies to build the evidence base in the career pathways field and inform career pathways systems and program development. The project’s findings suggest a need to focus more explicitly on supporting participants’ occupational advancement and on addressing barriers that hold back earnings growth, particularly for women workers and workers of color.

For the project, the Abt team systematically reviewed findings from 46 evaluations of career pathways programs—the largest such analysis on the topic. We found that, although programs on average increased educational progress and employment in targeted occupational sectors such as healthcare and information technology, they did not consistently increase earnings, particularly over the long run.

Another study in the project examined career trajectories and occupational transitions of workers entering “mid-level” occupations, which require preparation beyond a high school degree but not a four-year college degree. We compiled data from national surveys on over 20,000 workers’ careers for up to 10 years. We supplemented that with information on workers’ occupational transitions based on data culled from over 128 million unique resumes and online job profiles.

We then used the data to identify occupations that served as launchpads for subsequent wage growth for workers; the skill requirements associated with these launchpad occupations; and to what extent wage growth varied for workers of different genders and races.

This study found considerable variation in wage growth based on occupation and found that occupations emphasizing skills such as problem-solving and communication pay more over time than occupations that don’t.

Some of the most notable findings were around large disparities in wage growth by race and gender, among workers who started in the same occupations at similar wages. Black women, Hispanic women, white women, Black men, and Hispanic men all experienced lower wage growth than did white men. Black women and Hispanic women experienced the lowest wage growth.

The study team developed an interactive dashboard that helps practitioners and employees identify occupational paths that could produce higher earnings. The dashboard relies on the rich data our analyses produced on what happens to workers after they enter a given occupation, including occupational transitions that tend to lead to wage growth. It was the first time a project funded by DOL’s Chief Evaluation Office used a public dashboard to disseminate findings.

The study highlights the need for policymakers, practitioners, and employers to identify, raise awareness of, and address barriers to career advancement, particularly for women and workers of color. Employment and training programs could also equip program participants with resources to navigate barriers that may affect wage growth and support their career advancement. Though getting a good job is an important start for all workers, supporting workers along a career pathway includes recognizing that experiences may differ for workers by race and gender—and responding accordingly.

PROJECT: Career Trajectories and Occupational Transitions Study
CLIENT: U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)

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Partnering with the Private Sector to Transform Cambodia's Horticulture Sector

Agriculture has long played a prominent role in Cambodia’s economy, especially in rural areas. It employs a third of Cambodia’s workforce, but the sector has not kept pace with growth in other sectors. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) recognized that diversifying away from traditional crops like rice and toward high-value horticulture crops could help foster more resilient, inclusive, and competitive markets with the potential to significantly increase incomes.

Traditionally, government- and donor-funded programs focused on building farm-level horticulture production capacity and increasing yields. These programs had relative success, but in 2016, imports still dominated fruit and vegetable sales, accounting for 70 percent of the market.

When USAID engaged Abt in 2017 to implement the Feed the Future Cambodia Harvest II project, the project took a different approach. It shifted away from concentrating on helping producers directly and instead took a “buyer-led approach,” aiming for more sustainable changes in the sector. The idea was to put buyers into more direct contact with producers, helping them work with producers to understand and respond to market demand. The buyers and producers agreed on goals and formed commercial partnerships to achieve them. The partnerships sometimes expanded to include input suppliers and financial institutions. As connections between commercial partners led to improved practices and increased sales, Harvest II was able to leverage these relationships to systematically target market opportunities and constraints and support system-level change.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, significantly disrupting the Cambodian economy and restricting imports. Amid the significant challenges that emerged, the economic dislocations led to an explosion of innovation as entrepreneurs seized on the chance to address the sudden drop in imported goods. This required stronger business relationships, market knowledge, and higher-quality products for both local consumption and export. The Harvest II team facilitated the business ties, skill building, and improved practices that market actors were increasingly eager to acquire.

As this $21.2-million project comes to a close, it has documented $75 million in farm- and firm-level sales (78 percent above the project’s target); $28 million in new investment by project partners (113 percent above the target); and 2,500 new jobs (26 percent above the target). Almost 800 enterprises have adopted improved supply chain management practices while over 8,000 producers have adopted improved agricultural practices. Project partners have registered 140 new products, disseminated climate-smart technologies, and expanded various digital technologies. More broadly, Harvest II has achieved three significant advances in the horticulture market system:

  • Supply chains have become more competitive and efficient. Buyers are investing in their supply networks by providing producers with training, technical and financial assistance, and access to a more secure market
  • Strengthened supply chains have given rise to more differentiated and value-added products. Increased business profitability enables processors to invest in factories and machinery to process higher-end items while providing support to suppliers to deliver high-quality fruits and vegetables.
  • New and more competitively produced products are enabling agribusinesses’ expansion into new markets in Cambodia and internationally.

Market actors are more interconnected and better prepared to create value than ever before. Businesses now supply modern retail outlets with high-quality fruits, vegetables, and processed products that adhere to strict quality assurance standards. As a result, on- and off-farm incomes for participants have increased and become more predictable, and prospects for market expansion are growing.

Harvest II provided some key lessons for such projects going forward. Buyers offer an efficient entry point to the market system. And market-systems-thinking enables market players to see the benefits of new technologies and business modelsand how collaboration can create benefits for all.

PROJECT: Feed the Future Cambodia Harvest II
CLIENT: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

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Catalyzing Finance for Women-Owned Enterprises

Few investors were putting money into women-owned or -led small and medium enterprises when the Abt Australia-led Investing in Women project started in 2016. A key reason is implicit and explicit bias in the investment community. Over the next few years, that gender financing gap changed significantly. Seed funding of AUD 29 million from Investing in Women (IW), an initiative of the Australian Government, has mobilized more than AUD 485 million to finance 71 women’s enterprises throughout Southeast Asia. The funding has supported over 4,379 full-time, quality jobs in industries such as agribusiness, organic agriculture and food security, ethical fashion, e-learning, medical healthcare, fintech, logistics, manufacturing, and artificial intelligence.

Seed funding of AUD 29 million has…

mobilized AUD 485 million
71 women’s enterprises
financed throughout Southeast Asia
>4,379 quality jobs
supported in agribusiness, ethical fashion, e-learning, medical healthcare, fintech, logistics, manufacturing, and artificial intelligence

 

The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic threatened this progress and fragile gains to gender equality. To respond to the crisis, IW pivoted its investing work to establish the Responsive Interventions Supporting Entrepreneurs (RISE) Fund. So far exceeding AUD 9 million in size, the RISE Fund combines public, private, and philanthropic resources to become the world’s first blended-finance facility to offset COVID-19 impacts on women’s SMEs and provide much-needed liquidity in a capital-constrained market in emerging economies.

Deployed through IW investing partners, the RISE Fund operated through two stages. The first, an Emergency Relief Facility provided grants and investment capital for up to six months to cash-crunched but otherwise stable SMEs in our portfolio. The capital infusion enabled women’s SMEs to meet their non-discretionary expenses, such as payroll and rent. The second, a Resilience Facility, allowed IW to ramp up investing activities in the immediate post-COVID recovery. Through the Resilience Facility, IW investing partners provided funding for 18 women’s SMEs in Southeast Asia. The Macquarie Group Foundation, the corporate philanthropy arm of a global leader in infrastructure asset management, also joined this initiative, contributing AUD 1.3 million to establish the Macquarie Investing in Women RISE Fund in the Philippines.

One of the women-owned enterprises supported by the RISE Fund is a private Vietnamese hospital chain that was hit hard when the pandemic reduced patient traffic and increased operating costs. However, the business was otherwise a stable investment; the private healthcare sector is likely to bounce back because its services are essential, and Vietnam’s public healthcare system has limited capacity. Additionally, demographic shifts and future economic growth are likely to boost demand for private healthcare services. Capital injection from IW enabled the hospital to cover operating costs, like salaries and pharmacy supplies. The financing helped establish a satellite hospital in Sa Dec, a city in Dong Thap province—growing the hospital chain’s geographical presence to better reach the Mekong Delta’s large, underserved population of 17.5 million people (20 percent of Vietnam’s population).

RISE has had significant impact in multiple ways, including effects on SMEs’ supply chains and end customers. For example, six SMEs provided more than 15,000 farmers access to markets, productivity-improvement services, and stable income for farming households throughout the pandemic. Two SMEs used technology to make education more accessible by providing financing to 881 students and training and placing 1,500 students in information technology roles.

Many of these women’s SMEs operate in male-dominated industries with implicit and explicit biases against women. Roadblocks preventing women from achieving their entrepreneurial potential have roots in social norms, attitudes, and customary practices that prescribe how much capital, time, and autonomy women can devote to entrepreneurial activities. Their business performance during a period of economic distress is changing the perception of women’s roles in the economy. These efforts demonstrate how women can help Southeast Asian nations reach their economic growth potential. At Abt, we care deeply about building back more equitably and changing social behavior to strengthen resilience to future shocks—investment for gender outcomes will be integral to making this a reality.

PROJECT: Investing in Women
CLIENT: Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)

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