At the core of our nation is a shared belief that no matter how humble your origins, you can improve your prospects through hard work and perseverance and give your children a fair shot at a secure and productive future. But fair or not, it’s your zip code that plays an outsized role in determining your access to opportunity in the United States.
Take John and Jane, two hypothetical teenagers born on the same day to parents with similar hopes for their children.
From birth, their prospects sharply diverged. In Oakland County, household income averages nearly $65,000; in Hillsborough County, it’s less than $50,000.
Like more than half of all 3- and 4-year olds in his community, John went to preschool, while Jane and most of the children where she lives did not. Fewer people live in poverty where John lives, and his town is safer than Jane’s, with far less crime.
Based on local graduation rates, John has a better chance of earning a high school diploma than Jane does. He’s also more likely to finish college and land a better-paying job.
Across a variety of key factors, it’s clear that John’s chances in life are significantly better than Jane’s, not because of his talent and ambitions, but simply because of where he was born and lives.
Until recently, the “ingredients” of opportunity and upward mobility have proved difficult to measure, quantify and track. But new research, including by influential researcher Raj Chetty of Harvard University, have found that a variety of interrelated factors – not just a given community’s unemployment rate or economic output – are vital to the “infrastructure” of opportunity.
The good news is that many of the factors that create and expand opportunity are susceptible to policy and private-sector change that could benefit more Americans.
Moreover, these factors are measurable.
That’s why Opportunity Nation, in partnership with Measure of America, created the Opportunity Index in 2011. The Index reflects the interconnected nature of 16 key economic, educational and civic factors that can expand or restrict economic vitality, such as the availability of well-paying jobs, the percentage of children in preschool, and measures of social capital such as rates of volunteerism. Another powerful factor is the number of teens and young adults ages 16-24 who are not in school or not working. Currently, nearly 6 million youth are “disconnected” in this way, and the higher the number of these “disconnected youth” in a given community, the lower the region fares in providing access to opportunity.
As an example of how this works, let’s return to John and Jane. John’s county earned a B on the 2013 Opportunity Index, while Jane’s community earned a C, due to its lower rates of preschool enrollment, lower graduation rates and higher rates of crime. Based on this data, Jane’s community may decide to implement a universal preschool initiative or a community policing program, both of which would improve its overall Opportunity Score.
Policymakers at the state and local level are already beginning to understand that there is much more to opportunity than the number of companies a state can attract and how a state or city might rank on various measures of “business friendliness.” Whether residents – particularly young adults – are also succeeding is becoming as much a priority.
- In Washington State, the Washington State Budget and Policy Center issued a report that used the Opportunity Index and county Opportunity Grades to identify eight specific policy priorities for the state, including improving access to high-quality education, protecting public health, and reprioritizing state spending to build thriving communities.
- In Iowa, the Des Moines Area Community and a local foundation have created a statewide coalition, “Opportunity Iowa,” that aims to raise public awareness about Iowa’s disconnected youth. The initiative has launched a worker-training program with a top local employer and convened representatives of 200 community and education organizations to work toward improving county Index Grades. This group is now expanding its work statewide.
- In Minnesota, Former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel is using the Opportunity Index as a learning tool for public policy students at Hamline University’s School of Business.
Companies are finding the Index to be a valuable tool as well. For example, Gap, Inc. is using the Opportunity Index to pinpoint high-need areas that would benefit from its “This Way Ahead” program, which provides students and young adults ages 16-21 with a nine-month job training and leadership development program. By the end of the 2012 fiscal year, more than 1,000 youth had participated in the program.
In a free society, some inequality is unavoidable. But inequality without the chance for mobility is economically inefficient and unjust.
One day, we hope national elections will rise and fall on a pivotal question: Is opportunity expanding where you live?
Russell Krumnow is the Managing Director of Opportunity Nation, a national, bipartisan, cross-sector campaign of 300+ organizations that are devoted to expanding economic mobility and closing the opportunity gap for more Americans. Follow: @oppnation