Looking through the lens of the Opportunity Index: an insider’s perspective

by Erica Gordon   •  

As we prepare to release the 2017 Opportunity Index in December, I’m thinking back to when I first tried to understand the Opportunity Index as someone who doesn’t easily follow data and lots of numbers at first glance. But now that I understand the Index better from my year of working at Opportunity Nation, it’s given me a new — and important — lens to look through.

The Index can be used to examine why progress has, or has not, been made when looking at past years AND it can also be used looking ahead (e.g. for actionable ways a city or county or state can improve opportunity for its communities). If there are multiple indicators that aren’t doing so well, the action might be having a conversation with community members about what they are seeing and what they need to prioritize.

One piece has stayed consistent over the six years that the Opportunity Index has been measuring opportunity: when young people do well, communities do well. So that’s always a place to start.

Now when I read news articles, I do so through the lens of the Index and I make connections and think about new questions in response to what I’m reading. For example:

  • Route Fifty’s article “Kentucky Is Home to the Greatest Declines in Life Expectancy” focuses on the fact that in eight counties in Kentucky, people can expect to die younger than their parents. While I was reading the article several Index-related thoughts emerged. In response to “in 13 counties across the U.S., Americans can now expect to die younger than their parents did,” I wondered what Opportunity Index indicators might be contributing to this outcome in these counties that aren’t being looked at. After reading that “other studies have found that nationally, life expectancy has ticked down slightly since 2014,” I thought about how this overlaps with national Index data. And seeing that “the authors found that much of the disparity in life expectancy was explained by risk factors like obesity, physical inactivity, hypertension, smoking, and diabetes, but that poverty, education, and unemployment also play a role,” made me think about how the Opportunity Index might have the potential to add more context to the second finding.
  • Bloomberg’s article “This American Town Was Left to Die, and Suddenly Economists Care” goes in depth about changes in South Boston, Virginia. As the article got into details about some challenges, I thought about what the county’s opportunity looked like over the last few years and if any one indicator might stand out with a major increase or decrease. It was mentioned that the county turned two former tobacco warehouses into a higher education center, to which I immediately pondered what kind of Index indicators and effects can we see leading up to that change and what might we see that changed since the transformation. Furthermore, with such a focus on trying to transform their community “one enterprise, one worker, at a time,” what else have they done on the ground that’s been working? What have they learned that other cities with similar challenges might benefit from?
  • The Atlantic’s “Where Do Schools Close Most Often for Weather?” article mentions that “…with its 50 closures, Louisville […] is the most-often-closed district that reported data to The Atlantic. […] The public-school districts in Columbus, Ohio, and Oklahoma City closed for 42 and 43 days, respectively, over the last decade. Meanwhile, multiple large districts—from Billings Public Schools in Montana to the Los Angeles Unified School District—have closed either once or not at all in the same timeframe.” The differences in days off of school across different states led me to think about what the Opportunity Score is like in the counties of the school districts and what connections might be made. The article also pointed out that “these cancellations inevitably disrupt lesson plans and exams, though there is some research suggesting snow-day closures do not affect student academic performance” and I immediately wanted to know more about what this research shows and if Opportunity Index data could offer any context about this research.

If you’ve used the Opportunity Index for conversations or actions in your community, we’d love to hear about them! We’d also love to hear if you’ve done research on a problem or success in a community with the Opportunity Index. If you’d like to share your experience about either of these or have any questions about how to use the Index, please contact me at Also, stay tuned as I try to answer some of the questions I wondered about here leading up to the launch of the 2017 Opportunity Index.

Erica Gordon Erica Gordon is Opportunity Nation's Senior Communications Manager aka storyteller, data interpreter/translator and articulator of nuanced messages to diverse audiences. Learn more about Erica here and find her on Twitter at @erica_g.

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