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Want to get ahead? Live in the right ZIP code

by CBS News   •  

Pop quiz: Unemployment in the U.S. is down to 5.1 percent, GDP between April and June surged 3.9 percent, and wage growth is running just ahead of inflation. Are most Americans getting ahead?

If your answer was something along the lines of, “uh, how would I know?” then join the club. Because while the torrent of economic data hoovered up in the public and private sectors is undeniably useful, it often obscures more than it reveals about what daily life is really like in the U.S.

Even more challenging is gauging whether people retain that all-important, and all-American, foundational cultural belief that hard work and grit are the main ingredients for success.

Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit group focused on improving economic mobility in the U.S., concludes in a new report that the ongoing recovery, along with smart public policy, are chipping away at some of the obstacles to advancement, such as joblessness and access to health care and education — if you’re lucky enough to live in the right ZIP code.

“The circumstances of one’s birth matter a lot,” said Russell Krumnow, managing director of Opportunity Nation, a coalition of business, educational, philanthropic and other organizations.

Social scientists and some economists have long known that when it comes to moving up the ladder, geography is key. Not surprisingly, perhaps, growing up in a more affluent neighborhood affords a host of advantages, from better education and social connections to a reduced incidence of crime and access to healthier food.

And on that score, Opportunity Nation’s latest index, which weighs economic, educational and other factors that affect upward mobility, shows that millions of poorer Americans are falling further behind as rising income inequality deepens the gulf between rich and poor.

“When you look at the individual county level around the U.S., you can see how some people are growing up in places with many challenges, and others are growing up in areas where the numbers are moving in the right direction,” Krumnow said. “As a country, that doesn’t show the equality of opportunity we’d like to see.”

Such opportunity isn’t only a matter of economic fairness, he emphasized — it’s also a matter economic efficiency, underlying the importance of a having an educated workforce for employers and for the country as a whole.

Not that the U.S. isn’t making at least some progress, according to Opportunity Nation. Jobs, the sturdiest harness against a downward socioeconomic slide, are more plentiful. High school graduation rates are trending up in many parts of the country. Violent crime is generally down, and Internet access is more widespread.

On the group’s fifth annual index — which tries to pinpoint both economic and noneconomic factors that affect mobility, such as the availability of good schools, decent jobs and high-quality health care — every state in the nation has improved in opening the doors to opportunity.

At the same time, however, inequality has nevertheless widened in 47 states. That puts particular pressure on what Krumnow calls “disconnected” youth, referring to the 5.5 million 16- t0 24-year-olds who are neither in school nor employed. As of this year, nearly 14 percent of young adults were in that category, up from just under 13 percent in 2007.

Two major — and interrelated — reasons the recovery isn’t doing more to lift the fortunes of many teens and young adults: poverty and inequality. U.S. Census data released last month showed that the share of Americans living below the poverty line held steady in 2014 at 14.8 percent, surprising many experts who expected to see that number tick down given the healthier economy.

A recent Urban Institute study also found that two out of five children spend a year in poverty before they turn 18.

Meanwhile, inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. remain at its highest levels since before the Great Depression, economists including Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have found in noting corrosive effects that trend has on American society.

“As we’ve recovered over the last five years, the economic gains have more unevenly accrued to top income earners,” Krumnow said.

There’s no shortage of proposals for leveling the economic playing field for all Americans. Those include policies aimed at alleviating poverty, a federal mandate for universal pre-K education, using the tax code to redistribute income and encouraging public-private partnerships to provide worker training.

Opportunity Nation, whose backers range from Wall Street banks to major charitable groups, says it favors bipartisan approaches to empowering Americans. In reality, though, for now many such proposals remain politically divisive, or even dead on arrival, leaving little room for big solutions to even bigger problems.

Yet Krumnow, while acknowledging the partisan political climate, is upbeat, saying Democrats and Republicans have a shared interest in lifting up Americans, especially young people. “I remain optimistic that on some issues there’s a chance for agreement.”

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