Is Opportunity Knocking for Today’s Young People?

Access to opportunity – that’s what our nation stands for, what many of us have fought for, and what a lot of us over 50 want most for the next generation.

So how are young people in the U.S. doing on this year’s Opportunity Index, which measures 20 economic, educational, health and civic indicators that expand or constrict access to opportunity?

A little bit better than last year, but access to opportunity depends a lot on where you live, and progress is hardly evenly distributed.

The news comes from Opportunity Nation and Child Trends, two nonprofits behind the just-released 2017 Opportunity Index, which measures 20 economic, educational, health and civic indicators that expand or constrict access to opportunity.

This year’s overall U.S. Opportunity Score is 52.4 (100 being the best possible score), up 2.6 percent over last year. But is that glass half-empty or half-full?

It’s easy to say “both” when you dive into the details. For example, one of the key indicators of progress for young adults is the number of “disconnected” or “opportunity youth” – young adults ages 16 to 24 who are not in school and not working, but are available and looking for work.

On the up side, the proportion of disconnected youth has dropped from 14.4 percent in 2011 to 12.3 percent in 2017. That’s progress. And yet, nearly 5 million young people are still “disconnected.” (For more research on disconnected youth, check out Promising Gains, Persistent Gaps, a recent report from Measure of America.)

And while opportunity is up in many ways, it remains segregated by race and ethnicity. According to the Index, “Half of the counties with the lowest levels of opportunity are ones where people of color are in the majority. No county that was more than 20 percent American Indian or Alaska Native received an Opportunity Grade higher than a C.”

The education and health indicators are mixed, too. The percentage of adults with an associate degree or higher has increased in every state since 2011. But preschool enrollment has declined in 27 states and improved in only 16.

And while nearly every state saw improvements in the rates of health insurance, “deaths of despair” from drug and alcohol poisoning and suicide rose in 43 states and the District of Columbia.

General Colin and Mrs. Alma Powell, founding and current chair of America’s Promise Alliance, a Gen2Gen partner organization, wrote recently about opportunity and responsibility:

“It is unacceptable to see young people cut off from the world of opportunity and contribution. It is unacceptable to watch children abandon faith in the future before their lives have really begun. It is unacceptable to condemn the nation to social division and resentment. The first step in confronting unacceptable problems is not to accept them…

“The involvement of caring adults in young lives can be decisive. The problems created by humans have human solutions. If every American did just one thing in this cause, the future of our country would be transformed. And every one of us can do something.”

Across the country, Gen2Gen partners and supporters are involved in efforts to improve life for young people on all of these indicators and more. If you’re looking for a cause that would welcome your energy and experience, check out the Gen2Gen Opportunity Finder and search by zip code for a volunteer position near you.


Where’s your state on the Opportunity Index?

The top five states, as ranked on the Opportunity Index, are Vermont, Minnesota, Iowa, Massachusetts and North Dakota. The bottom five are West Virginia, Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico. For the full list, check here.