Coming Together: Why we Need an Opportunity Nation Summit

by Mark Edwards   •  

These are challenging times, and Americans of all beliefs and backgrounds are looking to Washington with despair. Whether it’s the Occupy Wall Street protests, the Tea Party, or a working mom or dad going through bills on the kitchen table, many are wondering whether our elected officials can break through the gridlock and inaction to provide a new vision of opportunity in America.

That’s why Opportunity Nation is launching at a summit on November 3 and 4 in New York City, bringing together more than 500 political, business, academic, and community leaders to kick-start a national campaign to promote opportunity, social mobility, and access to the American Dream.

Co-convened by TIME Magazine, AARP/AARP Foundation, United Way, and the Ford Foundation, Opportunity Nation believes in the premise that no party, ideology, or single program has all the answers to revitalize the American Dream, and that significant progress will only be made by coming together and elevating ideas we can all agree on.

For too long we have sliced and diced the interconnected issues of education, jobs, families, and communities – the framework underlying the idea of opportunity – into narrow silos that are disconnected, as if opportunity was a zero-sum idea. We gather in silos, we fund in silos, we mobilize in silos, and talk only to those who share our own points of view.

We know this approach doesn’t work. The poverty rate was at its lowest in 1973 and, despite national economic growth and innovative programs and approaches, the poverty rate has never fallen that low again.

Part of the problem is that the escalator of mobility has ground to a halt. The idea that only in America can anyone succeed, no matter who he or she is, is the foundation of our exceptionalism and our national spirit. Yet it’s an idea that is no longer true.

Many other industrialized countries now have more mobility than we do. Among OECD countries, only Italy and Great Britain have lower rates of economic mobility than the United States. In the United States, 47 percent of the economic advantage held by fathers is passed along to their sons. This is compared to 17 percent in Australia and 19 percent in Canada. American children born into the middle quintile are just as likely to end up poorer than their parents as they are to end up wealthier, and only 1.8 percent of them will reach the top five percent of earners.

What Americans are stuck with today is the combination of decreased mobility and rising inequality. Though the recession has highlighted these issues, we know it didn’t begin in late 2007. During the late 90s boom, 34 percent of all Americans spent at least two months of any year below the poverty line. A recent paper estimated that, in the next generation, 49 percent of all American children will be in a household that uses food stamps.

Opportunity Nation exists to create a space to develop a plan to promote opportunity that is truly shared. No political party has a lock on expanding opportunity, and we want to hear everyone’s best ideas about how to help Americans succeed again.

Backed by a coalition of almost 200 organizations, our summit will bring together diverse perspectives. One panel, for example, will feature policy scholars from the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Brookings Institution to share the stage. Together, they will focus on ideas we can all rally around to promote opportunity, rather than on ideas that drive us apart.

Opportunity Nation will also be unveiling an innovative online tool, the Opportunity Index, which will allow communities around the country to measure opportunity where they live, and highlight where the deficiencies – and assets – lie.

At the summit we will hear from leaders in business, education, the nonprofit sector, faith communities, and government. These people are opportunity generators who are creating change every day. We want to bring them together to answer a basic question: what can we do to restore opportunity in America?

Opportunity Nation will emerge with a shared, cross-partisan plan to promote opportunity, and we will then demand from our political leaders that they either have a plan of their own or adopt ours.

We know that this is a significant undertaking, and the summit on November 3 and 4 is really just the beginning. Yet we hope that we can spark a renewed national focus on the problem of opportunity, because the reality is that Americans aren’t going to wait around for their leaders to act. As New York Times columnist David Brooks has recently written, “While the cameras surround the flamboyant fringes, the rest of the country is on a different mission. Quietly and untelegenically, Americans are trying to repair their economic values.”

Now is the time to help them in that task.

This article also appeared on the website of our new media partner, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.


Mark Edwards

Mark Edwards is the founder and co-chair of Opportunity Nation. Read Mark's bio.

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