Opportunity Index Strives to Level the Playing Field for America’s Youth

Anyone who has ever read “The Great Gatsby” knows that the promise of the American Dream might require an asterisk next to it.

“Just remember,” advised Nick Caraway’s father on the novel’s opening page, “that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”

That honest summation, more than 90 years after F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the book, still rings true for so many Americans today. It’s a sad reality that Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan coalition committed to expanding economic opportunity, is working hard to upend.

That’s why Opportunity Nation’s Opportunity Index, recently featured at a conference moderated by Opportunity Lives‘ own Carrie Sheffield, was such a vital first step.

“Too often the ZIP code where you’re born does determine your destiny”

Instead of merely philosophizing on the unequal starting points that plague America, the index strives to categorically quantify the specifics of what exactly “opportunity” means. From there, one can work to retool those opportunities in communities all across the nation.

Ease of use is perhaps the index’s greatest asset. All one has to do is visit the index online — or simply click here — and type in the ZIP code of one’s town in the search bar to receive that town’s Opportunity Index grade, down to the most detailed of data points.

“Too often the ZIP code where you’re born does determine your destiny,” said Mark Edwards, founding executive director of Opportunity Nation, speaking at a conference on Capitol Hill. “This national narrative that we have about just simply working hard and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, it really doesn’t work that well when you’re born in the wrong place.”

But what exactly does “the wrong place” mean?

According to Edwards, understanding civic opportunity is about far more than a mere glance at a town’s unemployment figures. Household income, education opportunities like Advanced Placement courses, high school graduation rates, crime rates, local commerce and banking institutions, Internet access, child truancy rates, even access to healthy food: all coalesce to form that ephemeral term known as “opportunity.”

“If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to succeed; it’s really as simple as that”

“If you’re willing to work hard, you should be able to succeed; it’s really as simple as that,” Edwards said. “It doesn’t mean equality of outcomes, of course, but it does mean equality of opportunity and fair play.”

The Opportunity Index, therefore, can reveal to communities where they are strongest and, perhaps more importantly, where they are weakest — with the statistics and holistic data as proof.

That’s key for a young student like Sabrina Gonzalez, who views opportunity not just as a practical means to achieving success later in life, but a guidepost of hope, a motivator that inspires her daily to get out of bed and work hard.

“And the hope that comes with that American dream, understanding that no matter where you come from, there’s a chance to be something more,” Gonzalez said. “It’s saying to ourselves: yes, we got this, we got this, we can do it.”

“And the hope that comes with that American dream, understanding that no matter where you come from, there’s a chance to be something more”

To find out how your community ranks, head on over to the Opportunity Index online.

Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.