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Reconnecting Youth in America’s Cities

This blog post originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on July 2, 2015. You can access the original article here.

For many young people, June is a month replete with excitement and promise. Graduating seniors toss their mortarboards skyward, college kids kick off summer jobs and internships, and newly minted college graduates join the working world in earnest. But for teens and young adults who have dropped out of school or failed to gain a foothold in the labor market, June, like the rest of the year, offers few encouraging opportunities.

These “disconnected youth”—young people between the ages of 16 and 24 years who are neither working nor in school—are unmoored from the jobs, training programs, and academic institutions that anchor and give shape to the lives of their connected counterparts. Absent the experiences and supports that school and work provide, disconnected youth struggle to acquire the skills and credentials they need to live rewarding, freely chosen lives as adults. Youth disconnection stunts human development, with adverse impacts on the affected young people themselves as well as on the economy, social sector, and criminal justice system, and in the political landscape.

According to our recent research, there are 5,527,000 disconnected youth in America today, or nearly 1 in 7 young adults (13.8 percent)—about as many people as live in Minnesota and more than the populations of 30 states.

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Though the rate of youth disconnection has fallen since the Great Recession (roughly 280,000 fewer young people are disconnected today than in 2010, the last decade’s peak), the numbers are still higher than pre-2008 levels. And even leaving aside the costs of wasted potential, our society spends billions each year on disconnected youth—a conservative estimate of just some of the direct financial costs tallies $26.8 billion for 2013 alone.

Among the 98 major metro areas we studied—home to two in three Americans—disconnection rates range from less than 8 percent in the Omaha, Nebraska, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, metro areas to more than 20 percent in greater Lakeland, Florida, Bakersfield, California, and Memphis, Tennessee. Nationally, youth disconnection rates for blacks (21.6 percent), Native Americans (20.3 percent), and Latinos (16.3 percent) are markedly higher than rates for Asian Americans (7.9 percent) or whites (11.3 percent). In nine metro areas, at least one in four black youth are disconnected; in 10 metro areas, at least one in five Latino youth are. Clearly, youth disconnection is a complex and highly variable issue. What can we do about it?

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First, what won’t work: laying the problem at the feet of disconnected young people themselves and expecting them to solve it on their own. To alter the trajectory of his or her life, a young person needs perseverance, the optimism to envision a better future, and the willingness to work toward it. But disconnected young people face challenges far beyond what they can tackle through sheer willpower. Disconnection is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon; it is an outcome years in the making. These young men and women tend to come from segregated, historically disadvantaged communities, and their struggles with education and employment too often mirror those of their parents and neighbors.

A meaningful starting point would be for cities to adopt the goal of cutting in half the wide gaps between racial and ethnic groups within their metro areas. In Chicago, for example, 17 percentage points separate the youth disconnection rates for blacks (24.5 percent) and whites (7.5 percent). Halving that black-white gap to 8.5 percentage points within five-to-seven years is an ambitious but achievable goal. Governments, businesses, schools, and nonprofits should join together to establish measurable, time-bound, tailored targets like this one, as well as blueprints for meeting them. Setting customized targets in metro areas across the country and working in concert across sectors to meet them would make the plight of these young people visible at a more local level while also moving the needle on the national problem.

Over the long term, meaningful progress requires preventing disconnection in the first place. A growing body of research suggests several cost-effective preventative investments:

  • Helping at-risk parents give their children a good start through programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership
  • Prioritizing universal, quality preschool, which imparts the social and emotional skills necessary for success later in life, and is associated with fewer behavioral problems, higher high-school graduation rates, less crime, fewer teen births, and higher wages and rates of homeownership
  • Improving K–12 education in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and under-resourced schools, including offering services to address the emotional, health, and financial challenges young people bring with them into the classroom
  • Creating diverse pathways to meaningful careers through apprenticeship and mentoring programs like California’s Linked Learning, which provides high-school students with real-world job experience, experiential learning, and connections between high schools, community colleges, and local businesses
  • Boosting civic engagement, which research shows cuts the likelihood of disconnection nearly in half
  • Addressing residential segregation by race; our research showed that, in highly segregated metro areas, black youth tend to have higher-than-average rates of disconnection

America spends too much time, money, and effort fighting the consequences of youth disconnection—and too little preventing it. Long-term solutions that improve conditions in disconnected, opportunity-scarce communities, knit these communities into the fabric of the larger society, and create meaningful pathways to adulthood within them is the answer to youth disconnection. Easier said than done, we know. But all of our country’s young people deserve a meaningful shot at their own American dreams.

Community Action from Shared Understanding: A Case Study in Sonoma County

This blog post originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity on June 30, 2015. You can access the original article here.

Sonoma County is a thriving northern California county known for world-class vineyards and breathtaking vistas as well as rich cultural diversity and the entrepreneurial spirit of its residents.The county is also home to a vibrant web of community organizations dedicated to making it a better place. But Sonoma County residents recognize that their communities – like so many across the nation – face the difficult reality of deep disparities in access to opportunity.

Most Americans see the gap between the rich and the poor as a problem. But reasonable people who are concerned with the growing divides in the United States can, and do, disagree about how best to address them. At Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, we have found that by creating a common frame of reference about the nature, extent, and consequences of inequality, it is possible to mobilize broad coalitions to improve human development outcomes.

Aiming to confront disparities head on and develop a detailed roadmap to address them, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services commissioned Measure of America to produce A Portrait of Sonoma County in late 2013.

The report found that although Sonoma County overall scores well on the American Human Development Index – a composite measure of health, education, and income – outcomes in these areas are highly uneven. In some communities, residents enjoy long lives, very high levels of educational attainment, and earnings more than double the national median; in others, residents struggle to meet their most basic needs.

Crucial to its success was a collaborative process to support the report’s development, dissemination, and implementation. The report concludes with an “Agenda for Action” that outlines concrete recommendations for addressing the county’s greatest challenges and identifies high-priority neighborhoods. Seventy-five organizations and individuals signed a “Pledge of Support” committing “to using A Portrait of Sonoma County to better understand … gaps in opportunities and to partnering with the community to identify the strengths and assets on which to build a comprehensive and inclusive response to this report.”

County leaders agree that, one year after its launch, the Portrait has become the gold standard for data on need and well-being in Sonoma County. Evidence-based attention to racial and ethnic disparities is leading to conversations about the reality of de facto segregation, and the Board of Supervisors’ official acceptance of the report has spurred municipalities and agencies to put human well-being progress on the same level as infrastructureand other priorities. In the words of Alfredo Perez, executive director of First 5 Sonoma , “You can’t go to a meeting in the community without the Portrait of Sonoma being talked about.”

The shared understanding has been instrumental in catalyzing advocacy and policy changes to promote greater equity:

  • County agencies have agreed to concentrate and coordinate substantial resources in the five communities identified in the Portrait as having the highest potential to move up the Human Development Index.
  •  Shortly after the report’s publication, the County Board of Supervisors voted to regulate e-cigarette use, citing the Portrait’ s findings on high teenage tobacco use in the county as an impetus for new limitations.
  • The report prompted the formation of a funder’s circle that is coordinating the efforts of community and private foundations, hospitals, and the county government with an eye towards finding projects that they can collectively throw their support behind.
  • Following the Portrait ’s recommendation to “make universal preschool a reality,” the Board of Supervisors requested a cost estimate for this program. Policymakers estimated requiring $70 million for instruction and facilities, and the board is exploring financing options for the county’s first-ever universal preschool program.
  • A pilot program has begun, with the bottom-ranked census tract on the index as the first site, to create a series of murals aimed at community engagement and healing. The goal is to use public art as a means for improved local law enforcement-community relations and to tap into cultural assets in underserved areas.

How can we take the experience of Sonoma County and replicate it at scale? First and foremost, legitimacy is key: community and government involvement foster legitimacy. Data-driven change also relies on accessibility and transparency. Accessibility means communicating findings in plain language (whether it be English, Spanish, or another language) and ensuring that inequality is defined in a non-contentious way that people can relate to.

Transparency consists of explaining data sources, calculations, and goals—and giving the data used to produce any analysis to the public, free of charge. And social change requires real partnerships across sectors and political divides.

As the Portrait Pledge of Support states, “only by working together as equal partners with a shared vision and common agenda can we hope to achieve our long-term goals of making Sonoma County the healthiest county in the state for our residents to work, live, and play.” The report and its adoption by Sonoma County can serve as a model for other cities, counties, and states looking to improve the wellbeing of their citizens.

Two Americas: A Better Way To Measure How We Are Really Doing

This blog post originally appeared on Cognoscenti, a blog of WBUR, Boston’s NPR station on June 4, 2015. You can access the original article here.

There’s a problem with our conception of progress in America: It’s based on money and not much else. We hear a lot about economic indicators like the trade deficit, or the price of oil, or stock-trading volumes, but relatively few people know that young adults in Abington, Brockton and Avon are six times as likely to be disconnected—neither working nor in school—as their counterparts in Allston or Brighton, or that an African-American baby born today can expect to live, on average, 11 fewer years than an Asian-American baby born today.

Economic indicators like gross domestic product (GDP) provide important information, but using them as proxies for societal progress paints an incomplete and often misleading picture. For instance, from 1974 to 2013, America’s GDP grew by more than 200 percent—but during that same time, the relative child poverty rate also grew, from 20 percent to 30 percent. So while we should celebrate New England’s post-recession economic growth, we also must look beyond the marquee numbers to see how this growth is, or isn’t, translating into better lives for people.

The American Human Development Index (HDI) is a better way to think about and measure progress. It combines indicators on three basic building blocks of a good life: health, education and income. And it expresses the result on a zero-to-10 scale. Based on a conceptual framework developed by Harvard’s Amartya Sen and adopted by the United Nations, the HDI enables communities to understand where they stand relative to others, shines a spotlight on opportunity gaps, and helps identify solutions.

Using the American HDI, we ranked the 435 congressional districts and Washington, D.C. Our analysis revealed astonishing inequalities within regions and states, even in parts of the country that are doing well overall—like New England, which ranks first in terms of well-being among nine Census Bureau-defined regions in the U.S.

What do these rankings mean on the ground, and why do they matter? Compare, for example, New England’s top- and bottom-scoring districts: District 5 in Massachusetts, containing the suburbs north and west of Boston, and District 2 in Maine, a largely rural area covering a majority of the state’s land, and the only one in the region that scored below the national average.

A baby born today in Massachusetts’ District 5 can expect to live, on average, 81.6 years—more than three years longer than a baby born today in Maine’s District 2. The Massachusetts baby—let’s call her Emma, the state’s most popular name for girls in 2014—will grow up in a region in which more than half of all adults have completed bachelor’s degrees, more than one in four hold graduate degrees, and median personal earnings are about $42,000 (about $12,000 more than the national median).

Our Maine baby, little Olivia (Maine’s second-most popular name for girls in 2014), will grow up in a place where far fewer adults, about one in five, have bachelor’s degrees, and where median personal earnings are about $25,000, roughly $5,000 less than the national median.

Higher shares of college graduates in a place are associated with better educational outcomes for children, more economic growth and higher wages, even for those without college degrees. In addition, children whose early years are spent in economically stressed households tend to have worse health as adults than children who grow up in more affluent families. In other words, Emma is likelier to enter adulthood with a good education, find a job, earn higher wages, and even enjoy better health than Olivia.

The HDI shows how disinvestment and neglect have left whole communities behind, especially when it comes to education, health, civic engagement and real opportunities open to young people. For example, compared to children in the suburbs, children living in urban neighborhoods are much more likely to live in poverty, be exposed to safety and health risks, and attend overcrowded, underfunded schools where they feel unsafe, where teachers have high rates of absenteeism, where behavioral problems disrupt learning, and where achievement levels and graduation rates lag.

Though recent national dialogue around income inequality is a step in the right direction, we also need to examine the other ways in which people in America experience opportunity — or the lack of it. Why are young adults in one area six times as likely to be disconnected from both school and work as those just across town? Why should people in one district outlive their neighbors in the adjacent district by six or seven years?

To answer these questions, we need to take an honest look at how and where we are allocating public resources. We also need to rely on indicators that focus directly on people and the real opportunities they have to live rewarding, productive, freely chosen lives. Just some of the ways we can begin to address these inequalities include creating programs that fight the biggest contributors to preventable death in the United States: smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive drinking; supporting high-quality universal preschool programs; providing more young people access to higher education; helping students complete their degrees; and ensuring that all jobs offer decent wages, economic security and dignity. By including health, education and income in defining a good life, we can more accurately measure progress, and we can begin to drive real change, in New England and across the country.

Why Health Data Matters: A User’s Perspective

This blog post originally appeared on HealthData.gov on March 11, 2015. You can access the original article here.

Inveterate innovator Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

That adage holds true today—without doing the work to learn about the world, there is little we can do to change it. The need for actionable data is important enough to be enshrined in our Constitution, within the provision that established the United States Census. Unlike censuses in other countries, which were meant to tax or conscript, the United States Census was the first one designed to empower—it was the basis of representation in Congress and ultimately government spending.

Publicly available data are tremendously valuable and empowering. To give an example close to home, without these data, my organization, Measure of America – a project of the Social Science Research Council – would not have the raw materials necessary for our calculations of life expectancy at birth, youth disconnection, and many other vital measures of the lives of ordinary Americans. These calculations, in turn, provided the public health workforce with important statistics to inform their work. We learned, for example, that California’s Latinos, on average, outlive whites in the state by 3.6 years. Or that in the Baltimore metro area, Asian Americans outlive African Americans in the same city by an average of 17 years (90.5 years vs. 73.4 years).

The hallmark of our work, and product of openly available data, is a measure of well-being and access to opportunity in American communities called the American Human Development Index. It is based on the time-tested index used by the United Nations each year to measure development in every country. This index connects three basic areas of life—health, education, and standard of living—on one scale, allowing well-being comparisons between places and groups.

For health, our American Human Development Index requires life expectancy at birth, a basic summary measure of survival. Using mortality and population data from an agreement with the National Center for Health Statistics of  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have calculated life expectancy at birth for every U.S. state, congressional district, major metro area, and for the major racial and ethnic groups in each of these geographies. These data have been cited in The Lancet, The American Journal of Public Health and over forty other journal articles as well as twenty-six books since we began in 2008. They are the benchmark used by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for international comparisons and have been used by state and local health departments across the country. Illinois has used it to study their aging population, New Orleans to map domestic violence, amongst many others. In short, there is tremendous demand for these data as a basis for research, policy, advocacy, and local actions to build healthier communities. And without the costly investment of public agencies in this data collection, these next steps would not be possible.

Our jobs, and those of many other researchers (from hedge fund analysts and geologists to historians and cancer geneticists), are dependent on the government to collect and make data available that no other organization has the capacity to produce. Without it, we would know much less about the world we live in—and what we can do to improve it.

Domestic Violence: Silence Is Its Greatest Ally

This blog post originally appeared as a commentary on The Huffington Post on February 3, 2015. You can access the original article here.

As many as seven in 10 survivors of domestic violence in the U.S. report that their abusers threatened or hurt the family pet. In some shelters, an astonishing 68 percent of survivors report having been strangled or threatened with strangulation. People whose job it is to provide shelter, legal help, and other services for survivors recognize these two specific forms of control and violence as bright red flags that signal a particularly dangerous pattern of abuse, but the general public typically does not. And even when they fear the worst, most bystanders are at a loss as to what to say or do.

Over the past year, the topic of domestic violence has come forcefully into the public consciousness, spurring national conversations on the need to break the silence around intimate partner violence. The footage of NFL player Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious as well as the rapidly growing movements to address sexual assault in the military and on college campuses have made headlines. This has prompted celebrities, athletes, and organizations alike to take a public stand and to urge others to do something deceptively simple that can have a huge impact: talk about it.

As this challenging conversation evolves, it’s important to remember that the problem is bigger than the act of violence itself. Domestic violence has devastating psychological, physical, and economic consequences for those who experience it–and for the children who are exposed to it. Survivors often suffer from a host of long-term physical and mental health problems that have a significant impact on their ability to live a healthy, productive, and fulfilled life. And it’s not something that happens just to other people; one in four women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime, meaning that most of us have violence survivors in our lives, though we may not know it.

In our most recent report, A Portrait of California 2014-2015, we looked at three measures beyond GDP that provide insights into how regular Californians are doing: health, access to education, and earnings. Domestic violence arose as a major factor impacting the well-being of California residents in all three categories. This statistic from this report speaks for itself: in 2013, the number of emergency calls for help in California related intimate partner violence was roughly equal to the total number of all other violent crimes in the state put together. Further, 41 percent of women murdered in 2013 in California were killed in circumstances related to domestic violence, the single largest cause of female homicide in the state.

While our recent focus was on California, domestic violence is, of course, a national problem. Because of the complexity of this particular type of violence–it generally happens behind closed doors, and its victims often have family ties to or are financially dependent on their abusers–it is underreported and under-prosecuted, meaning that domestic violence is even more pervasive than these startling statistics suggest. Domestic violence disproportionately harms women, and men make up the majority of perpetrators. But it can occur among people in many forms of relationships and at many ages–including during teen dating, in LGBTQ couples, and in heterosexual couples where women are the abusers.

Research, including our own, shows time and again that domestic violence is central to any discussion of a long and healthy life. Its toll on the physical and mental health of survivors and their families in California, as in every U.S. state, is staggering. So much so, that we argue that victim services and policies to strengthen and enforce laws, while critically important, are not enough; it’s time for domestic violence to become a national public health issue that is addressed with awareness efforts on par with those around HIV/AIDS, smoking, seatbelt and car seat use, and drunk driving. An incredibly effective way to achieve this is to deploy the reach and power of Madison Avenue.

Such an approach is starting to take hold. The National Football League joined the No More campaign, a national effort to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault, and is sponsoring deeply affecting ads during football broadcasts, including during yesterday’s Super Bowl. These ads have increased views of NoMore.org by more than 240,000 per month. This is an encouraging start; the target audiences of the NFL’s campaign – young people and men – are typically the most difficult to reach on the topic.

But there is much more to be done. Using the sophisticated market research, tailored messaging, and multimedia techniques for which the ad industry is famous, additional high-profile marketing campaigns could sell change in at least three areas.

The first is to challenge beliefs and behaviors about women and men that contribute to intimate partner violence, including cultural messages that exalt a violent model of masculinity, lionize aggressive men as our heroes in popular culture, excuse controlling behaviors as typical parts of romantic relationships, and tacitly or overtly accept violence against women as normal. A public campaign could teach young people that healthy, respectful relationships are cool; violent ones, and violent people, are not. Beliefs and norms can and do change. A generation ago, getting behind the wheel after several drinks was unremarkable, even the subject of jokes. Today, it is not only a crime with real consequences but also a behavior that most people call out as dangerous, selfish, and stupid.

The second is to educate the public about the common dynamics and patterns of abuse that are widely recognized by experts but largely unknown or misunderstood by the general public. Being strangled, for instance, is a telltale warning sign of potentially lethal domestic violence. A campaign that flags strangulation and other widely-observed patterns has the potential to save women’s lives and protect countless others, especially children, from the harmful effects of family violence.

And the third is to redefine norms about how we bystanders should react and what, specifically, we can do when we see signs of domestic or sexual violence. Expanding and increasing awareness of and access to bystander programs like the successful Green Dot and UpStander initiatives currently provided nationwide and in New York, respectively, is a good place to start.

Domestic violence is a pervasive, complicated public health issue that requires an equally pervasive and multi-layered response. In addition to legislation and survivor support programs, we need the targeted, road-tested messaging of the ad industry to drive national awareness and begin the process of transforming attitudes towards both survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence. The potential for improving the health, well-being, and economic future for the survivors, families, and communities impacted by intimate partner violence is too immense to ignore.

Civic Engagement: One Simple Solution to Youth Disconnection

This blog post originally appeared as a commentary on the Policy Innovations site on February 2, 2015. You can access the original article here.

In 2013, over 2.8 million students in the United States were the proud recipients of bachelor’s and associates degrees. That same year, about twice as many young adults were neither in school nor working. This translates to more than five and a half million young people who were disconnected from both of these anchor institutions. Who are these young people, and what can be done to help get them on track towards a productive and meaningful adulthood?

Our research on this topic shows that the high personal costs of youth disconnection—teenagers and young adults ages 16 to 24 who are neither in school nor working—are not borne equally. We found racial variation to be tremendous. While about one in eight young Americans in this age range are out of school and work, the rate for African-American young men is one in four, and for Native Americans, the rate is one in five. But another important finding of our research really points the way to solutions that extend beyond a singular focus on workforce readiness and landing that first job. The typical disconnected young person has had a limited, low-quality education and has grown up in poverty surrounded by adults who themselves are also struggling with connection—to employment, to a solid education, and to strong social networks. Put simply: disconnected neighborhoods produce disconnected kids.

In a research project carried out with Opportunity Nation, we examined in-depth one aspect of these challenges: the role social networks play in the lives of disconnected youth. This new research suggests that civic engagement among young people, specifically unpaid volunteering, can play a surprisingly pivotal role in their lives. In fact, the likelihood that a young person is disconnected is cut in half if she or he volunteers with an organization, whether it be a school, church, youth or service organization, etc. This finding holds true for all of the country’s 25 largest cities and for youth of low socioeconomic status, teens and young adults with children of their own, and youth of color. Rates of youth disconnection in America’s 25 most populous cities are here. Volunteering helps them learn or build the social skills and contacts so vital for first entering the working world, staying employed, and advancing in one’s career.

These findings complement and reinforce previous research that has connected volunteering to a whole array of good outcomes for young people, ranging from increased self-confidence and positive social behavior to higher earnings potential and greater job prestige.1

Of course, meaningful volunteer opportunities are not evenly distributed. Young people whose families and neighbors have few ties to mentors or internship and job connections are least likely to have these opportunities. And they are also most at risk of disconnection. So this new research points the way to targeting volunteer and other civic engagement opportunities for youth who are most in danger of falling through the cracks.

Why does Youth Disconnection Matter?

The teens and early twenties are critical years for acquiring the skills and confidence and building the connections so crucial for future success. Research shows that those who struggle to get a foothold as young adults often suffer lasting scars that impact future earnings, financial independence, and physical and mental health for years to come (OECD, 2011). But youth disconnection is also a costly problem for us all. In 2011, disconnected youth cost a staggering $93 billion in government assistance and uncollected taxes (White House Council 2011). Disconnected youth are twice as likely to be on Medicaid. They collect six times as much government support as their “connected” counterparts (Burd-Sharps, 2015).

Some attention has been paid to the impact of the mid-2000s Great Recession on young people. Indeed, the Great Recession was tough on youth employment. But what is clear from our calculations, using Census Bureau data from well before the recession began, is that the numbers of disconnected youth are finally starting to ebb from their high of over 5.8 million in 2010. Yet even when this rate returns to its pre-Recession “low,” there will still remain literally millions of youth living in communities across the nation who are isolated economically, socially, and politically from the mainstream. These communities, and the young people within them, must be reengaged and reconnected if there is any hope of moving the needle on this problem.

Source: Measure of America analysis of U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 2006-2013 PUMS.

Measure of America’s work on disconnected youth has made one point abundantly clear. Youth disconnection stems from a host of interlocking factors and has no easy solution. Providing more volunteer opportunities for youth is clearly a great first step. Doing so will help those young people who are disconnected today. But to prevent disconnection in the future, we need to improve conditions and expand opportunities in today’s highly-disconnected communities.

Our alternatives are clear:

  • We can pay for success now by investing in supportive interventions with fragile families: high-quality preschool, wrap-around schools for poor children, relevant high-school curricula that includes career, technical education, and links to apprenticeships, and greater assistance for low-income young people to attend and complete college;
  • Or we can pay for failure later, picking up the tab for juvenile justice, crime, public assistance and poor health, reducing American competitiveness—all costs of leaving these young people behind.

Footnotes

1 Johnson, Beebe, Mortimer and Snyder, 1998; Yates and Youniss, 1996; Uggen and Janikula, 1999; Jastrzab, Blomquist, Masker, and Orr, 1997.


References

Bailey, M.J., and Dynarski, S.M., “Inequality in Post-Secondary Education,” in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, edited by Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane. New York:, Russell Sage, 2011.

Burd-Sharps, Sarah and Kristen Lewis, “One in Seven: Ranking Youth Disconnection in the 25 Largest Metro Areas,” Measure of America, 2012.

Burd-Sharps, Sarah and Kristen Lewis, “Out of School and Out of Work: Youth Disconnection in America’s Cities 2015,” Measure of America, (forthcoming April 2015).

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement,” 2013.

Corporation for National and Community Service, Volunteering As A Pathway To Employment: Does Volunteering Increase Odds of Find a Job for the Out of Work?, 2013.

Jastrzab, J., Blomquist, J., Masker, J., & Orr, L. “Youth Corps: Promising strategies for young people and their communities.” Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates Inc. 1997.

Johnson, M. K., Beebe, T., Mortimer, J. T., & Snyder, M. “Volunteerism in Adolescence: A process perspective.” Journal of Research on Adolescence, 8(3), 309- 332, 1998.

Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School. CIR- CLE Working Paper, 2008.

Lewis, Kristen and Sarah Burd-Sharps, “Halve the Gap By 2030: Youth Disconnection in America’s Cities,” Measure of America, 2013.

National Conference on Citizenship, Millennials Civic Health Index, 2013.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD Social Employment and Migration Working Papers No. 106. Paris: OECD Publishing, 2011.

Putnam, R. D., Frederick, C.B., Snellman, K., “Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness among American Youth,” Harvard Kennedy School of Government, The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, 2012.

Uggen, C., and Janikula, J., “Volunteerism and Arrest in the Transition to Adulthood.” Social Forces 78:331-62, 1999.

White House Council for Community Solutions, “Community Solutions for Opportunity Youth.” The $93 billion includes 6.7 million disconnected youth, as this report uses a different definition of disconnected youth.

Yates, M., and Youniss, J., “A Developmental Perspective on Community Service in Adolescence.” Social Development 5(1): 85-111. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.1996.tb00073.x. 2006.

Measuring Human Progress

This blog post originally appeared as a commentary on the Stanford Social Innovation Review site on December 9, 2014. You can access the original article here.

A new report on California highlights how human well-being is a more relevant gauge of progress than economic metrics.

African American men in California can expect to live fewer than 73 years—about the same as the life expectancy of men in Tunisia and Vietnam, countries with far fewer health care resources. Meanwhile, Asian American men in California can expect to live 84.4 years, a life expectancy that bests that of men living in global-well-being-nirvana Sweden by four years. These gaps and others as vast within California rival those that separate the richest and poorest nations. Why don’t we know more about these kinds of disparities—disparities in something so fundamental as being alive?

Americans hear about Gross Domestic Product growth every quarter, retail sales statistics monthly, and stock market figures every 15 seconds. But those economic indicators measure how the economy is faring, not what life is like for ordinary Americans. Using financial indicators alone as a measure of how well Californians, Americans, or indeed any group of people globally, are doing, is insufficient. Worse, it can give misleading signals. By that score, residents of California’s Kern County, which produced $6.2 billion in agricultural output in 2012 alone, should be thriving. Yet one in three children in Kern County lives in poverty, and Kern ranks near the bottom of the list of California counties in terms of human well-being. Metrics that shed light on the lot of everyday people are more relevant gauges of progress than the purely economic metrics that are a constant focus of our attention today.

Some of the benefits of education.

Some of the benefits of education.

Measure of America’s American Human Development (HD) Index measures well-being and access to opportunity in communities across the United States. The index is a composite measure of health, education, and standard of living adapted from the well-honed and widely referenced Human Development Index developed at the United Nations and informed by Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. We have applied it to a range of places and groups including US states, congressional districts, metro areas, counties, neighborhoods, and census tracts, as well as racial and ethnic groups and women and men. The results have helped stimulate more fact-based conversations about the challenges faced by communities across the country.

A Portrait of California 2014-2015” is the latest application of the American HD Index. The report provides data-based evidence that people’s capabilities strongly determine their real-life choices and opportunities, either enabling them to live freely chosen, flourishing lives, or constricting their range of possible futures.

Let’s take a look at some specific examples to see just how significant a role the three areas of the index measures play in the lives of Californians:

  • Health: A baby born today in the neighborhood cluster in Santa Clara County with the highest California HD Index score can expect to live nearly a dozen years longer than a baby born in the Los Angeles County neighborhood clusters with the lowest score.
  • Education: If we could wave a magic wand and increase educational attainment in California by one level for every resident (i.e. those without a high school diploma would have one, those with a high school diploma would have an associate’s degree, etc.), median personal earnings would increase by more than $7,000, nearly one million fewer Californians would live in poverty, and 1,200 fewer Californians would be the victims of murder each year. In short, education is the closest thing we have to a human development silver bullet.
  • Earnings: California’s farm workers make an abysmal $15,000-$17,500 per year for arduous manual labor few other Americans would sign up for. But UC Davis economist Philip Martin showed that raising those wages by 40 percent would only increase the price of fresh produce for the average American consumer by $16 per year. Crop workers could make a decent wage without reducing access to healthy food in a significant way for consumers—a human development win-win.

Health, education, and earnings matter, and making even modest improvements in one area can have a ripple effect across the complete human development spectrum. With that in mind, we have an agenda for action that will help Californians build the capabilities that foster well-being and expand opportunities.

Agenda for Action

Changes in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and government can reduce the disparities in health, education, and earnings that divide Californians today and have the potential to raise HD Index scores for everyone—especially groups currently left behind—tomorrow.

The main drivers of health disparities are rooted in the circumstances in which different groups of Californians are born, grow up, work, and age—the so-called social determinants of health. This means that improving the health of Californians first and foremost requires improving the conditions of daily life, especially in communities where risks to health are many and varied—including exposure to environmental toxins, violence, excessive alcohol advertising and poor access to healthy foods.

In terms of education, evidence is mounting that we are waiting too long to reach out to disadvantaged children and their parents. Increasing access to knowledge in the state requires an approach that starts early in life, beginning with efforts to help at-risk mothers have healthy pregnancies and new parents living in poverty build their caregiving skills, and ensuring access to high-quality childcare and preschool for the children of disadvantaged families.

Raising the standard of living requires, of course, reasonable pay for work. Raising the minimum wage and increasing the earnings of farm laborers will change the lives of tens of thousands of families. But we need to address other factors that shape standard of living as well, including the scarcity of affordable housing and protections from unpredictable and unstable schedules for hourly shift workers.

What happens in California has national and even international significance for two reasons. The first is the sheer size of the place: One in every eight Americans lives in California, and if California were a country, it would qualify for a seat at the G8. And the second is the state’s demographics: California is America’s most diverse state and on the cutting edge of the demographic changes that will wash across the country in coming decades. “A Portrait of California” thus offers an intriguing glimpse at America’s future.

Access the full report here and map the data here.

INTRODUCING… MOAB!

moab, measure of america blog

“Fisher Towers at sunset” by Greg Schaefer. – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

MOAB is a few things. It’s a place in Utah known for views like this one, “Fisher Towers at sunset”, and for some vicious mountain biking. It’s also known in the historical record as a strip of mountainous terrain in Jordan. This is a stretch but we’re gonna do it anyway: introduce our own MOAB, the Measure of America Blog. A pretty decent set of inspirations as we explore the landscape of human well-being in America, tracking the highs and lows… err.. no. Promise, we won’t stretch it too far.

What is Measure of America?

Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), provides easy-to-use yet methodologically sound tools for understanding the distribution of well-being and opportunity in America. Measure of America’s mission is to tell the story of how American people are doing, not just how the economy is doing. We use publicly available U.S. Census data to measure human well-being on a simple 10-point scale.

The concept underlying our work is called Human Development. The late economist Mahbub ul Haq, working with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen developed the idea in response to government reliance on the commonly used measure of gross domestic product (GDP). They demonstrated that not only that GDP was an inadequate proxy for well-being, but also that attaching such outsized importance to it encouraged governments to measure, value, and even do the wrong things.

A New Way To Measure Progress: The Human Development Approach

A New Way To Measure Progress: The Human Development Approach

The resulting Human Development Index, is known as the gold standard for measuring the well-being of large population groups and a proven vehicle for change the world over. The Index was adapted for use in the US as the American Human Development Index. We just call it The HD Index.

For starters to understand how it works, consider this: GDP, or market activity, rose by more than $10 trillion over the past half-century, a nearly five-fold increase. In the same period, the American HD Index value tripled, representing important progress but considerably less than GDP growth.

GDP and Human Development

GDP and Human Development: Important progress on both fronts, but PEOPLE lag considerably.

Income inequality is all over the headlines, but it’s clear that income and other money metrics, such as GDP, only tell a small part of the story. Measure of America brings the whole picture to light in three categories: education, health and the ability to earn a decent living. We then break it down to understand what’s happening in each of those areas and why. Too much to tell in one blog post. A good place to start from here is our signature report: Measure of America.

STAY TUNED FOR UPCOMING POSTS:

What Real Inequality Looks Like [Or…Tell Us Where You Were Born And we’ll tell you how long you can expect to live]

“What???” It turns out that where you are born and the unique interplay of education, health and access to earning a decent living can tell a lot about life expectancy. Did you know… The longest living people in the United States are Asian Americans in Baltimore, while those with the shortest life expectancy are African Americans born in Pittsburgh. The gap? 18 years. …Inequality is about much more than income.

MOAB and How You Can Use This Blog

MOAB, the Measure of America Blog is organized into these categories: What We’re Learning; What’s On Tap (upcoming publications); What We’re Reading; (our take on) What’s In The News. We’ll set each of those up for you as well as show you a few ways you can use our research to help move the dialogue forward in ways that can make your community better.

Moving the Needle on Youth Disconnection

This blog post appeared as a commentary on the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity site on July, 7, 2014. You can access the original article here.

The Great Recession may be over, but its pernicious effects endure in the lives of millions of young people. The downturn triggered a surge in the number of disconnected youth—people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not working or enrolled in school. And especially alarming is the concentration and persistence of disconnection within particular communities, giving lie to America’s promise of equal opportunityDisconnection from the societal anchor structures of school and work during the transition to adulthood has serious consequences for young people themselves as well as society as a whole. Research shows that young people never entirely recover from long spells of disconnection; instead, they carry scars of their lost years for the rest of their lives in the form of lower wages, worse health, lower marriage rates, greater unemployment, more contact with the criminal justice system, and even less happiness.Our organization, Measure of America, has worked to document the rate of disconnection within different groups, cities, and neighborhoods. Nationally, about 5 million young Americans were disconnected before the recession in 2007, but by 2010, that figure had swelled to 5.8 million—roughly one in every seven Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. Unfortunately, the tide of youth disconnection has been slow to recede, barely budging from 14.7 percent in 2010 to 14.6 percent a year later, with dramatic variations between racial and ethnic groups as well as between and within cities.African Americans have the highest rate of youth disconnection (22.5 percent) and are about three times as likely as Asian Americans and twice as likely as whites to be disconnected in their teens and early twenties. Latino young people have the second-highest rate of youth disconnection (17.9 percent).

Among the 25 largest U.S cities, the youth disconnection rate ranges from 9.2 percent in Boston to 18.8 percent in Riverside-San Bernardino. The variation of rates from neighborhood to neighborhood within these and other cities, however, dwarfs the variation between them. The starkest inequalities are found in Chicago, New York, and Detroit, in that order, where gaps between neighborhoods are as large as 30 percentage points.

What do these three cities share, aside from high neighborhood inequality? This: Detroit, New York, and Chicago are the three most racially segregated of the twenty-five most populous cities.

Further, our analysis shows that most communities with high shares of disconnected youth in 2011 also had high shares of disconnected youth in 2000, more than a decade earlier—a relationship that holds true even when controlling for population growth and demographic change. The persistence of youth disconnection in low-income, highly segregated neighborhoods where adults struggle with limited education and high unemployment suggests both an absence of effective action on the scale necessary to make meaningful change and the presence of deeply entrenched human poverty, defined as a lack of not just income but also access to knowledge, strong social networks, and civic engagement. It also means that youth disconnection has become a normal and expected experience in these communities. Young people in today’s most disconnected neighborhoods were in elementary school in 2000, and at that time, as many as three in ten teens and young adults in their lives were not working or in school—shaping these young children’s expectations about the future.

Solving the youth disconnection crisis requires three sets of actions. The first step is to actively reengage and reconnect young people who are disconnected today. The second step is to prevent disconnection tomorrow by improving the conditions and opportunities that exist in high-disconnection neighborhoods. The third step is for organizations and individuals active in this area to join together to establish realistic, measureable, time-bound targets for reducing youth disconnection and work collectively to meet them.

This last point is a vital but overlooked key to moving the needle on youth disconnection. To make progress, the diverse actors who work with disconnected young people must not only agree to coordinate, but they should also decide together what success will look like. Setting a goal to halve the national youth disconnection rate from 14.6 percent to 7.3 percent by 2030 is appealing in its simplicity. But a national goal can feel too far removed from the individualized efforts that are needed within each community. A more motivating and meaningful aim would be to cut in half the disconnection gap between neighborhoods and between racial and ethnic groups within each metro area.

What would this mean in practice? In Philadelphia, where the African American youth disconnection rate is 25 percent and the white rate is 9 percent – a gap of 16 percentage points – halving the gap would mean that no more than 8 percentage points would separate African Americans and whites. In terms of Philly neighborhoods, where the highest rate is 30 percent and the lowest 3 percent – a gap of 27 percentage points – halving the gap would mean no more than 13.5 percentage points separating affluent Main Line suburbs from city neighborhoods like Kensington and Richmond.

While these gaps are still too large, meeting goals like these in cities across the country would represent significant and attainable progress—and a more hopeful and promising future for hundreds of thousands of young Americans. The time to act is now. – See more at: http://www.spotlightonpoverty.org/ExclusiveCommentary.aspx?id=19e9820c-b210-4328-a4c9-1cdd74227016#sthash.MI4Ookip.dpuf

The Great Recession may be over, but its pernicious effects endure in the lives of millions of young people. The downturn triggered a surge in the number of disconnected youth—people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not working or enrolled in school. And especially alarming is the concentration and persistence of disconnection within particular communities, giving lie to America’s promise of equal opportunityDisconnection from the societal anchor structures of school and work during the transition to adulthood has serious consequences for young people themselves as well as society as a whole. Research shows that young people never entirely recover from long spells of disconnection; instead, they carry scars of their lost years for the rest of their lives in the form of lower wages, worse health, lower marriage rates, greater unemployment, more contact with the criminal justice system, and even less happiness.Our organization, Measure of America, has worked to document the rate of disconnection within different groups, cities, and neighborhoods. Nationally, about 5 million young Americans were disconnected before the recession in 2007, but by 2010, that figure had swelled to 5.8 million—roughly one in every seven Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. Unfortunately, the tide of youth disconnection has been slow to recede, barely budging from 14.7 percent in 2010 to 14.6 percent a year later, with dramatic variations between racial and ethnic groups as well as between and within cities.African Americans have the highest rate of youth disconnection (22.5 percent) and are about three times as likely as Asian Americans and twice as likely as whites to be disconnected in their teens and early twenties. Latino young people have the second-highest rate of youth disconnection (17.9 percent).

Among the 25 largest U.S cities, the youth disconnection rate ranges from 9.2 percent in Boston to 18.8 percent in Riverside-San Bernardino. The variation of rates from neighborhood to neighborhood within these and other cities, however, dwarfs the variation between them. The starkest inequalities are found in Chicago, New York, and Detroit, in that order, where gaps between neighborhoods are as large as 30 percentage points.

What do these three cities share, aside from high neighborhood inequality? This: Detroit, New York, and Chicago are the three most racially segregated of the twenty-five most populous cities.

Further, our analysis shows that most communities with high shares of disconnected youth in 2011 also had high shares of disconnected youth in 2000, more than a decade earlier—a relationship that holds true even when controlling for population growth and demographic change. The persistence of youth disconnection in low-income, highly segregated neighborhoods where adults struggle with limited education and high unemployment suggests both an absence of effective action on the scale necessary to make meaningful change and the presence of deeply entrenched human poverty, defined as a lack of not just income but also access to knowledge, strong social networks, and civic engagement. It also means that youth disconnection has become a normal and expected experience in these communities. Young people in today’s most disconnected neighborhoods were in elementary school in 2000, and at that time, as many as three in ten teens and young adults in their lives were not working or in school—shaping these young children’s expectations about the future.

Solving the youth disconnection crisis requires three sets of actions. The first step is to actively reengage and reconnect young people who are disconnected today. The second step is to prevent disconnection tomorrow by improving the conditions and opportunities that exist in high-disconnection neighborhoods. The third step is for organizations and individuals active in this area to join together to establish realistic, measureable, time-bound targets for reducing youth disconnection and work collectively to meet them.

This last point is a vital but overlooked key to moving the needle on youth disconnection. To make progress, the diverse actors who work with disconnected young people must not only agree to coordinate, but they should also decide together what success will look like. Setting a goal to halve the national youth disconnection rate from 14.6 percent to 7.3 percent by 2030 is appealing in its simplicity. But a national goal can feel too far removed from the individualized efforts that are needed within each community. A more motivating and meaningful aim would be to cut in half the disconnection gap between neighborhoods and between racial and ethnic groups within each metro area.

What would this mean in practice? In Philadelphia, where the African American youth disconnection rate is 25 percent and the white rate is 9 percent – a gap of 16 percentage points – halving the gap would mean that no more than 8 percentage points would separate African Americans and whites. In terms of Philly neighborhoods, where the highest rate is 30 percent and the lowest 3 percent – a gap of 27 percentage points – halving the gap would mean no more than 13.5 percentage points separating affluent Main Line suburbs from city neighborhoods like Kensington and Richmond.

While these gaps are still too large, meeting goals like these in cities across the country would represent significant and attainable progress—and a more hopeful and promising future for hundreds of thousands of young Americans. The time to act is now. – See more at: http://www.spotlightonpoverty.org/ExclusiveCommentary.aspx?id=19e9820c-b210-4328-a4c9-1cdd74227016#sthash.MI4Ookip.dpuf

The Great Recession may be over, but its pernicious effects endure in the lives of millions of young people. The downturn triggered a surge in the number of disconnected youth—people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not working or enrolled in school. And especially alarming is the concentration and persistence of disconnection within particular communities, giving lie to America’s promise of equal opportunity

Disconnection from the societal anchor structures of school and work during the transition to adulthood has serious consequences for young people themselves as well as society as a whole. Research shows that young people never entirely recover from long spells of disconnection; instead, they carry scars of their lost years for the rest of their lives in the form of lower wages, worse health, lower marriage rates, greater unemployment, more contact with the criminal justice system, and even less happiness.

Our organization, Measure of America, has worked to document the rate of disconnection within different groups, cities, and neighborhoods. Nationally, about 5 million young Americans were disconnected before the recession in 2007, but by 2010, that figure had swelled to 5.8 million—roughly one in every seven Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. Unfortunately, the tide of youth disconnection has been slow to recede, barely budging from 14.7 percent in 2010 to 14.6 percent a year later, with dramatic variations between racial and ethnic groups as well as between and within cities.

African Americans have the highest rate of youth disconnection (22.5 percent) and are about three times as likely as Asian Americans and twice as likely as whites to be disconnected in their teens and early twenties. Latino young people have the second-highest rate of youth disconnection (17.9 percent).

Among the 25 largest U.S cities, the youth disconnection rate ranges from 9.2 percent in Boston to 18.8 percent in Riverside-San Bernardino. The variation of rates from neighborhood to neighborhood within these and other cities, however, dwarfs the variation between them. The starkest inequalities are found in Chicago, New York, and Detroit, in that order, where gaps between neighborhoods are as large as 30 percentage points.

What do these three cities share, aside from high neighborhood inequality? This: Detroit, New York, and Chicago are the three most racially segregated of the twenty-five most populous cities.

Further, our analysis shows that most communities with high shares of disconnected youth in 2011 also had high shares of disconnected youth in 2000, more than a decade earlier—a relationship that holds true even when controlling for population growth and demographic change. The persistence of youth disconnection in low-income, highly segregated neighborhoods where adults struggle with limited education and high unemployment suggests both an absence of effective action on the scale necessary to make meaningful change and the presence of deeply entrenched human poverty, defined as a lack of not just income but also access to knowledge, strong social networks, and civic engagement. It also means that youth disconnection has become a normal and expected experience in these communities. Young people in today’s most disconnected neighborhoods were in elementary school in 2000, and at that time, as many as three in ten teens and young adults in their lives were not working or in school—shaping these young children’s expectations about the future.

Solving the youth disconnection crisis requires three sets of actions. The first step is to actively reengage and reconnect young people who are disconnected today. The second step is to prevent disconnection tomorrow by improving the conditions and opportunities that exist in high-disconnection neighborhoods. The third step is for organizations and individuals active in this area to join together to establish realistic, measurable, time-bound targets for reducing youth disconnection and work collectively to meet them.

This last point is a vital but overlooked key to moving the needle on youth disconnection. To make progress, the diverse actors who work with disconnected young people must not only agree to coordinate, but they should also decide together what success will look like. Setting a goal to halve the national youth disconnection rate from 14.6 percent to 7.3 percent by 2030 is appealing in its simplicity. But a national goal can feel too far removed from the individualized efforts that are needed within each community. A more motivating and meaningful aim would be to cut in half the disconnection gap between neighborhoods and between racial and ethnic groups within each metro area.

What would this mean in practice? In Philadelphia, where the African American youth disconnection rate is 25 percent and the white rate is 9 percent – a gap of 16 percentage points – halving the gap would mean that no more than 8 percentage points would separate African Americans and whites. In terms of Philly neighborhoods, where the highest rate is 30 percent and the lowest 3 percent – a gap of 27 percentage points – halving the gap would mean no more than 13.5 percentage points separating affluent Main Line suburbs from city neighborhoods like Kensington and Richmond.

While these gaps are still too large, meeting goals like these in cities across the country would represent significant and attainable progress—and a more hopeful and promising future for hundreds of thousands of young Americans. The time to act is now.

 

The Search for Lasting Solutions

This blog post appeared as the conclusion to Bread for the World’s annual Hunger Report. You can find the Hunger Report here.

Fresno County, California, leads the nation in agricultural productivity, with an annual agricultural output valued at $6.8 billion. Fresno farms yield a cornucopia of fresh food, producing more grapes, chicken, turkey, milk, tomatoes, peaches, plums, and almonds—among others—than any other U.S. county. Paradoxically, Fresno also has a higher rate of food insecurity than any other California county. One in five residents—more than 190,000 people—experience times when they don’t have enough food for an active, healthy life.There’s no better illustration that hunger in the United States is not due to a lack of food than Fresno, a county whose workers literally feed America, yet often cannot feed themselves.

The presence of hunger amid plenty is profoundly troubling, its persistence even more so. If we’re being honest with ourselves, while the composition of the hungry population has certainly shifted over time, we have failed to move the needle on this issue in any fundamental way for more than a decade. U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show household food insecurity hovering just under 12 percent from 1998 to 2007, after which it rose above 14 percent in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The household food insecurity rate in 2012 was 14.5 percent, which translates to nearly 49 million Americans.

The puzzling part is that this problem endures despite excellent research about the root causes of food insecu­rity, years of advocacy, important policy reforms, innovative programs on the ground to feed people, the dedication of myriad volunteers, and significant financial resources. Collectively, the government and private organizations spent about $115 billion fighting hunger in 2011. That’s $315 million every single day.

There’s so much first-rate work being done to understand and address hunger in America, and the richest country in the world certainly lacks neither money nor food. We need to figure out how to pull this work together such that it equals more than the sum of its parts.

Measure of America’s aim is to rethink the ways in which we as a society understand and mea­sure disadvantage, with a view to reframing the debate and re­engaging Americans in the search for lasting solutions. One way we do this is by using numbers to tell the story of what’s going on with everyday Americans. Measure of America’s American Human Devel­opment Index is the cornerstone of this work. Another is to highlight what’s working, not just in the United States but also around the world, to improve well-being and expand opportunity.

In September 2000, leaders from 189 countries met at the United Nations and agreed to work jointly toward eight measurable, time-bound goals to reduce global poverty—goals such as halving the percentage of people who are undernourished, reaching 100 percent elementary school enrollment, and providing access to HIV/AIDS treatment for everyone who needs it. They were called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDG rallying cry did not, of course, solve all of the world’s problems, but it spurred tremendous action and results. The global target to cut the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by half was reached ahead of the 2015 deadline, as were goals on access to safe water, fewer malaria deaths, and better living conditions for slum dwellers. In addition, the world is on track to meet the hunger and tuberculosis targets.

The MDGs were remarkably powerful and successful for many reasons. They helped focus governments and NGOs on achieving a limited set of clear objectives in areas that were central to human well-being, and they made it hard for those who preferred to look the other way to continue denying the existence of severe human deprivation. They gal­vanized collaboration and brought home the realization that duplication and competition among similar organizations would not get the world across the finish line. They created a more predictable environment in which recipient governments and NGOs weren’t pulled this way and that by constantly shifting donor priorities, making longer-term planning and programming possible. And most importantly, the MDG process put in place a system of accountability in which progress toward the goals was tracked annually and communicated widely. This regular, accessible reporting put persistent divides, such as those between rural and urban areas and between the very poorest and everyone else, into bold relief. The shift from measuring inputs (we lent $2 million, we installed fifty wells, we trained one hundred teachers) to measuring outputs (50 percent fewer people dying of malaria, twice as many girls enrolled in secondary school, half as many people drinking unsafe water) meant that invest­ments had to yield tangible results to count as progress.

The eighth goal involved raising the money to pay for this progress. The flow of foreign aid had dwindled during the 1990s, and the international consensus around the ambitious MDG targets provided a shot in the arm for development assistance. Total development aid went from $79 billion in 2004 to almost $129 billion in 2010 (in constant 2009 dollars).3 Though that sum fell short of what some had hoped for, and funds slowed after the global recession, such an increase had been unthinkable in the business-as-usual scenario.

The MDGs encouraged a wide range of actors to pull in the same direction and provided a clear measure of success. Could those in the United States working to reduce hunger and food insecurity commit to a small set of widely-agreed outcomes—within a set time period— that would focus efforts, increase collaboration, and maybe even stimulate some healthy competition in an area where today too many Americans are paying too little attention? We think it’s worth a try.