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Harnessing Assets to Build an Economic Mobility System: Reimagining the American Welfare System

Author(s): 
Lewis, Melinda
Project(s): 
Wealth Transfer
Publication type: 
Report

Harnessing Assets to Build an Economic Mobility System provides new empirical insights that help to explain what so many Americans intuitively grasp, and what U.S. policy debates so studiously ignore: Upward economic mobility and a chance at financial security are slipping beyond the grasp of many households. This report examines the drivers of mobility by distinguishing between standard of living, which is related to consumption and available income, and economic mobility and wellbeing, which require assets in addition to income and fuel multiplier effects. The former is supported by the consumption-based welfare system, including programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly food stamps), which is designed to help households exit poverty and consume at a level consistent with a near-poverty level. Upward mobility and wellbeing is advanced by an asset-based welfare system, largely made up of tax credits and deductions that helps more advantaged Americans accumulate assets. By highlighting the significance of assets for achieving economic mobility and true wellbeing, this analysis emphasizes the importance of building policy structures capable of helping households generate assets, not just increase income. The report proposes Economic Mobility Accounts—tax-advantaged savings accounts that help Americans of all income levels save and accrue assets across the life course—as a policy structure that may once again make upward mobility accessible to all Americans.

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Citation: 

Elliott, W. and Lewis, M. (2014). Harnessing Assets to Build an Economic Mobility System: Reimagining the American Welfare System. Lawrence, KS: Assets and Education Initiative (AEDI).

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