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University, central Ohio leaders meet to address challenges facing the middle class

Alliance for the American Dream committed to boosting household incomes

From improved access to affordable child care to free busing, ideas flowed in a ballroom at the Fawcett Center on Tuesday for the first meeting of the  Alliance for the American Dream.

The project at The Ohio State University has the ambitious goal of raising the net income of 10,000 middle-class families in central Ohio by 10 percent in the next two years.

“This is not an Ohio State project. This is a community project,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Bruce McPheron. “These are our challenges, our opportunities. And it’s going to take all of us working together as partners to really make an impact on those who have struggled and their complex socioeconomic problems.”

A collection of university faculty and staff, as well as leadership from Columbus, Franklin County and the state attacked the problem at the brainstorming session on campus. The alliance is the creation of the Schmidt Futures philanthropy organization. Schmidt Futures was founded by Eric Schmidt, technical adviser to Google parent company Alphabet and its former executive chairman.

The organization awarded Ohio State a $1.5 million grant to develop innovative ideas to increase economic opportunities for local families. McPheron announced the university would commit an additional $500,000 to the effort.

“This really strikes home with me, because my vision for our city is to become America’s opportunity city, a city with a middle class larger than any other city our size and the country,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther to close out the session.

Ginther said the alliance was the type of public-private partnership that has helped solve the city’s problems in the past. He called it the Columbus way.

“We have these amazing public-private partnerships that we’ve developed and lots of people are in alignment on this issue, in terms of understanding the needs of what has to happen in our community,” said Elena Irwin, faculty director for the  Sustainable and Resilient Economy program. “And Ohio State, over the years, has nurtured those relationships. And it really comes to bear at moments like this when we really want it to.”

Irwin helped organize the first planning session. Tables filled with people representing all parts of the community focused on ideas and solutions to combat the problems that lead to inequality.

“Boy there were so many ideas my head is almost spinning,” said Harvey Miller, director, Center for Urban and Regional Analysis. “From free public transportation, to providing financial life coaching, to providing portals to give people information about how to better navigate government benefits. We talked about how to retire student debt.”

Miller said Ohio State is in a unique position to help tackle this challenge.

“We’re taking the traditional land-grant mission but adding this urban dimension to it and I think that’s going to be something that’s going to be very fruitful both for the cities in Ohio but also for the university and for scholarships and education. And we need that,” he said.

The goal of the project is to develop three ideas by December and share them with Schmidt Futures and the three other universities tied to the alliance: Arizona State University, University of Wisconsin and University of Utah.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for Ohio State to be partnering not just with Schmidt Futures but more importantly with all the community organizations and agencies and governments across Ohio that are involved in this issue,” Irwin said. “It’s a really complex issue. There are real, systemic problems that have led to where we are now in terms of the hollowing out of the middle class and growing income inequality.”