The zip code you’re born into should not determine your chances in life. If the ability to move up the ladder of opportunity grinds to a halt, we are in grave danger of losing the best of America. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening in the country today. Taking action to restore the promise of the American Dream requires knowing where we stand. Where across the nation are conditions for economic opportunity and upward mobility strongest? Where are they most lacking?
To answer this question, Measure of America was commissioned by the not-for-profit Opportunity Nation to create an index to measure community opportunity. Focusing on three main dimensions, the Opportunity Index is a unique tool designed to provide a snapshot of what opportunity looks like in our communities.
The Opportunity Index was first presented in September 2011 with a ranking of every state and over 2,400 counties. The updated 2012 Opportunity Index, being released at a national summit in Washington, DC, on September 19, 2012, presents both a picture of today and a comparison with last year.
The 2012 Opportunity Index reveals some interesting new facts:
- Across America, there is tremendous variation in these basic measures of opportunity. For example, nearly three-fourths of adults today in Falls Church County, Virginia, have at least an associate degree; fewer than one in ten do in neighboring McDowell County, West Virginia.
- Of the 16 areas of opportunity measured in the state Opportunity Index, two areas saw the most improvement since 2011. Employment rates rose in forty-seven of the fifty states plus DC. Access to high-speed Internet improved in fifty states.
- Washington, DC, considered a state for the purposes of this Index, made the most progress over the 2011 Index, with a jump in its ranking from number 29 out of the 50 states plus DC in 2011 to number 23 on the 2012 Opportunity Index. DC saw the greatest improvement of any state in income, one of only six states where income rose; and the third-largest drop in unemployment after Michigan and Alabama.
- The county that improved the most since the 2011 Index is Hancock County, Georgia. Hancock saw important declines in its unemployment rate and some progress in high school graduation rates.
- States with higher levels of youth disconnection—teens and young adults not in school and not working—tend to have far lower Opportunity Scores. This indicator of youth disconnection has the strongest correlation with the Opportunity Index at the state level of all the indicators included in the Index. Remaining connected to school or joining the labor force as a young adult appear to be very important components of opportunity.
- Inequality, one of the indicators included in the Opportunity Index, is most strongly associated with both indicators of civic engagement included in the Index—volunteerism and group membership. People are less likely to volunteer and join groups in places where inequality is high.
- Voter turnout, as measured by the proportion of the voting-age population that voted in the last presidential election, tends to be higher in both states and counties where Opportunity Scores are higher.
The Opportunity Index is the centerpiece of a nationwide campaign to refocus priorities on access to opportunity for all Americans. The Index will be issued annually, giving leaders in all sectors a way to track progress and measure the effectiveness of their efforts.
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