Opportunity in the United States

-By Eric Stam, Senior Analyst-

Where is opportunity in America? I had a chance to find out at a forum convened by Opportunity Nation and Washington Monthly on Capitol Hill this November 4th to discuss just that question and share insights from the recently released 2013-14 Opportunity Index. The Opportunity Index measures opportunity in the nation’s communities based on three categories of measures: the economy, education, and community assets. The forum began with comments from Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado). Bennet and Portman are sponsors of the CAREER Act which proposes major reforms to the federal jobs training apparatus. I thought Sen. Portman’s emphasis on performance and outcome measures as central to federal reform efforts particularly relevant to ongoing conversations in the Community Action Network. Indeed, the inclusion of performance measures and pay for performance mechanisms is one of the more controversial aspects of the CAREER Act.

The Opportunity Index data showed evidence of low social mobility in the United States, especially when compared to a number of Western European countries. It also highlighted the need to look closely at disconnected youth across the country since, aside from the poverty rate, disconnected youth, or 16-24 olds who were neither in school nor working, was the second biggest driver of a county’s Opportunity Score. The typical American Dream tells a story in which anyone, regardless of starting position can move upward to a better life if they work hard and play by the rules. Unfortunately, the latest Opportunity data paints a quite different and discouraging picture of reality.

But I thought the forum ended on a high note as a variety of panelists shared ways in which more people are using the Opportunity Index as a performance metric and rallying flag, helping to motivate communities to change reality for disconnected youth across the country.   Ron Denson, President of the Des Moines Area Community College talked about using the Opportunity Score as a powerful tool to focus efforts and resources in Iowa. Not only did the Governor of Iowa declare February 2012 “Opportunity in Iowa” month but Denson outlined a number of programs and partnerships at the college designed to get kids through school and into jobs where they can immediately contribute, ultimately driving improvements in the state’s Opportunity Score. In Iowa at least, the Opportunity Index has become a useful and meaningful symbol of the work and progress that so many in the Community Action Network work towards as well. Denson closed the session with a light hearted warning for Iowa’s slightly higher ranked neighbors, “Nebraska, watch out! We’re coming for you.”