What We Can Do to Increase Opportunity in America•
This month, Opportunity Nation and Measure of America released new data on upward mobility and opportunity in the United States over the past five years, as communities have emerged from the Great Recession. The mixed results – particularly for young adults – serve as a powerful call-to-action to renew our efforts to expand access to the American Dream for the rising generation.
Overall access to opportunity has increased by 9 percent since 2011 in all 50 states and Washington DC and three-quarters of all counties. This increase is driven largely by an improved employment picture, higher graduation rates and a drop in violent crime, among other factors.
These gains are worth celebrating.
But the Opportunity Index, a multi-dimensional measure of economic, educational and civic opportunity at both the state and county levels, also highlights several significant obstacles to upward mobility that require solutions from all sectors – public, private and nonprofit.
Poverty has increased 10.5 percent over the past five years, and median household income has dropped from $51,050 in 2011 to $48,906 in 2015. Income inequality has increased in 47 states over the same time frame.
These setbacks have hampered upward mobility and economic security for millions of Americans, including teens and young adults.
Today, nearly 14 percent of all U.S. youth ages 16 to 24 are disconnected. While this number represents a modest decrease from five years ago, it remains stubbornly above pre-recession levels.
We have to do better, and we can.
Each of us can help create an opportunity moment for a young person. We can help a student with a college application, offer a young adult an internship, donate to a nonprofit that is dedicated to strengthening career and education pathways, support legislation and polices that promote opportunity, or volunteer as a mentor.
I know from personal experience how powerful an opportunity moment can be.
Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t be where I am today. Like millions of American children, I was at risk for becoming disconnected from education and career pathways.
My mother had me when she was 19 and our family grew to six children. Without a career pathway or postsecondary education for my mother, life was tough.
When I became a young mother myself, I was determined to disrupt the cycle of poverty and give my first son, who is now 17, a better chance at life. I returned to college within weeks of his birth and continued my studies.
I know how fortunate I am. Besides me, just one of my five siblings managed to graduate from high school, and none have completed postsecondary education.
Meanwhile, I was selected for the first class of Gates Millennium Scholars, a full-ride scholarship that enabled me to earn my bachelor’s degree and continue to Syracuse University for a master’s.
That scholarship was my opportunity moment.
I have been able to give my children a stable, secure, middle-class life – what many call the American Dream.
And I want that for every young person in America. Young adults are our future leaders, innovators and policymakers. That’s why I am so passionate about the work of Opportunity Nation, and I’m honored to be its new executive director.
We know from the data provided by the Opportunity Index that when our youth do well, our communities do well. We all benefit when young adults are educated, employed, engaged and have hope for the future.
Though youth disconnection transcends geography, ethnic background and income bracket, we know that low-income youth and youth of color are disproportionately represented. These young adults are most at risk and therefore most in need of urgent action and support.
That’s why Opportunity Nation’s diverse coalition focuses so much of our policy and advocacy work on the 5.5 million disconnected youth ages 16 to 24, and the millions more who are at risk for disconnection and who live in every community in the country.
We are proud to partner with organizations like NPower, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that seeks to builds brighter futures for underserved young adults and veterans through free technology and professional skills training. This includes tech classes, mentoring, internships and career development workshops.
More than 80 percent of NPower’s alumni are employed or pursuing higher education within one year of graduation.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation is one of our most important thought partners on issues ranging from two-generational approaches to combat poverty to effectively reaching some groups of children and teens most at risk for disconnection, including youth aging out of foster care and youth who have spent time in the juvenile justice system.
It’s exciting that several of Annie E. Casey’s KIDS COUNT network partners, which are all dedicated to improving child well-being in all 50 states and Washington D.C., are in our coalition, including The Children’s Trust of South Carolina and Rhode Island KIDS COUNT.
At YouthBuild, low-income young adults learn construction skills through building affordable housing and other community assets such as schools, playgrounds and community centers.
YouthBuild has 260 urban and rural programs in 46 states. In 2014, 16,000 young adults participated in YouthBuild programs, and performed 4 million hours of community service. In addition, 8,000 YouthBuild graduates were placed in jobs and education pathways.
The success of these organizations combined with the new Opportunity Index data should compel all of us, from all sectors, to work together to elevate youth voice and leadership and support policies and programs that dramatically increase opportunity for our future workforce and job creators.
Together, we are having an impact. Access to opportunity is the key theme of the 2016 presidential race and both parties are talking about economic mobility, income inequality and jumpstarting the American Dream. Let’s keep the expansion of opportunity a major focus of the 2016 presidential race.
Data like the Opportunity Index can help policymakers and community leaders identify challenges and solutions, and bring unlikely allies together around a common purpose. I hope you will explore the Index and share it in the communities where you live and work. And if you aren’t already part of Opportunity Nation’s coalition, consider joining our network.
Together we are going to ensure that expanding opportunity is the focus of the next President of the United States – whoever he or she may be.