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Opportunity Nation: By Measuring Opportunity, Index Hopes To Restore Access To The American Dream

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OPPORTUNITY NATION INDEX
Sensing a lack of opportunity, on Wednesday in Oakland, Calif., young protesters took to the streets. | AP

NEW YORK -- As of Friday morning, every state and nearly every county in the U.S. has been given an "opportunity score" to determine where in the country economic mobility is flourishing and where it has grown stagnant.

Called the "Opportunity Index," the interactive website is being unveiled as a part of the Opportunity Nation summit convening this week in upper Manhattan.

The summit, which brings together leaders from business, foundations, faith-based communities and advocacy organizations, is attempting to determine what it will take to expand access to the middle class for all citizens -- and make the American Dream a reality for even the most impoverished.

"There's a belief that the zip code you're born into shouldn't determine your life's chances," said Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, Mass., and funded by both private donations and foundation dollars. "In essence, what gets measured gets managed and we see this as a way of measuring opportunity."

Updated annually and developed jointly by the American Human Development Project and Opportunity Nation, the Opportunity Index is a tool for elected officials and average citizens to track yearly progress.

Kristen Lewis is the co-director of the American Human Development Project, a non-partisan initiative that focuses on issues of well-being.

Lewis emphasized that measuring opportunity isn't generally found by just one indicator -- say, in the poverty or unemployment rate -- but is instead found at the intersection of several different metrics.

As such, Lewis said the index weighs several indicators that contribute to economic mobility in the U.S. -- things like median household income, on-time high school graduation rates, poverty, preschool attendance, access to high-speed internet, crime rates and civic participation.

Somewhat surprisingly, income was not seen as the strongest indicator of opportunity. For instance, while Nevada has a higher-than-average median household income, it ranks last in the nation due to low scores in education and other community-based deficits.

The strongest opportunity correlation, said Lewis, is when a state's academic and economic forces align. Specifically, states with a higher percentage of 16-to-19-year-olds not in school and not working tended to have lower opportunity scores.

Friday's report also ranked each state according to the levels of opportunity available to its residents. Connecticut, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Vermont and Nebraska topped the list, while Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi and Nevada ranked near the bottom.

In terms of geography, the index found the 15 highest-scoring states to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the country -- with five from the Northeast, five from the Midwest, three from the South and two from the West. But among the lowest scoring states, a dozen are in the South.

After the summit concludes Friday afternoon, the hope is that the index might spark debate and inform both existing policymakers and future candidates for elected office.

"Part of our goal as an organization is to bring the notion of opportunity into the mainstream dialogue," Edwards told HuffPost earlier this week. "We wanted to create a tool that allows individuals to measure opportunity, compare it and ultimately to discuss it."