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U. joins national effort to boost middle-class incomes

Newly appointed University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins speaks to news media after her appointment at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Jacob Wiegand/Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A national effort to boost incomes for America’s middle-class has picked the University of Utah as a partner on the project.

University officials say a strong, healthy middle class is vital for America’s economic future, and the U. has been tasked with gathering and developing ideas to ensure that vibrant middle class.

Schmidt Futures donated $1.5 million to the U. for the Alliance for the American Dream initiative. The university will seek policy and technology ideas from people throughout the state, with the goal of increasing net income for about 10,000 middle-class households in Utah by 10 percent by 2020.

“The University of Utah is one of four public universities to be part of this initial Alliance for the American Dream,” said Courtney McBeth, special assistant to the U. president and project director.

The Alliance for the American Dream is based on the concept that a healthier and larger middle class reduces income disparity and provides enhanced opportunity and economic mobility, according to the university. The initiative’s goal is to increase shared prosperity and American competitiveness by generating and investing in ideas that strengthen the middle class by giving more Americans the skills and opportunities they need to improve their lives, according to a news release.

“Today, too many middle-class families find themselves at risk of falling into poverty, while too few see a path to build a brighter future for their children,” Schmidt Futures founder Eric Schmidt said in a statement. “America needs a strong middle class. Our future depends on it.”

Schmidt said the best ideas come from people working together in their own communities. Ideas on how to strengthen the middle class, for example, could include raising income or decreasing costs of such necessities as transportation, housing, utilities or food, he said.

“We are happy to welcome the University of Utah as an inaugural partner in the Alliance for the American Dream,” Schmidt said. “Utah looks like quite different than when I lived here in the 1990s, and yet many of the features that made it a great place to do business then continue today — an energized and giving population, an innovation mindset and a willingness to pilot new policies and ideas.”

Ohio State University also has been selected to participate. The other two universities making up the inaugural Alliance for the American Dream are expected to be announced in the coming days.

McBeth said university officials in the coming weeks will begin soliciting ideas from throughout the state by late fall. Ten proposals will be selected, and each will receive up to $10,000 to further develop the idea.

“The university will be running a statewide community ideas challenge to solicit technology and policy ideas from both individuals and teams that are focused on strengthening the middle class,” McBeth said.

The ideas challenge will begin in mid-May, she said.

“We’ll be traveling around the state and within our respective communities to gather diverse perspectives on how to solicit the best ideas,” McBeth said.

“We look forward to having lots of conversations with different community members, and really bringing our community together to try to strengthen the middle class through emerging and innovative ideas,” she said.

An advisory board led by U. President Ruth Watkins will select the three top technology and policy ideas from that group, according to the university. Each of the three proposals will be eligible for an additional award of up to $30,000 to refine the idea.

The U. will then forward the three proposals to the Alliance for the American Dream, which will provide up to $1 million in additional support to the best ideas that emerge from across the nation, McBeth said.

Watkins said the project brings together “students, faculty, staff and the community,  (and)  aligns perfectly with our role as the state’s flagship institution.”

“As a top-tier research university, we recognize and embrace our duty to make positive, real and lasting contributions to our state. We are excited to see what promising ideas come forward to improve our community and provide equitable access to opportunity and prosperity,” she said.

Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox said the Alliance for the American Dream initiative “will help us develop critical infrastructure for continued economic growth in our state.”