This post was co-authored by Mark Edwards
One year ago, Fareed Zakaria threw down the gauntlet in his TIME cover story, How to Restore the American Dream, when he said, "the grim reality is that technology and globalization are shattering the middle class... the good news is that a bipartisan policy agenda can return the country to prosperity." A coalition of nearly 200 organizations called "Opportunity Nation," emerging from the right, left and center of the political spectrum and with reach to more than 100 million Americans, took up the challenge to create such a bipartisan plan of action.
As Zakaria warned, however, it will not be easy.
The recent economic downturn has left millions of Americans unemployed, slashed the value of their homes and retirement accounts, and aggravated a government with crippling deficits and fewer resources to invest in the future. But the problem runs deeper than a downturn. As Mike Gerson stated, "the great, hopeful churn of American mobility has slowed."
More than 46.2 million Americans lived in poverty in 2010, the largest increase in poverty in four decades. Remarkably, in the land of the equal chance, only 6 percent of children born to parents at the bottom of the income distribution make it to the top. For the first time, today's young adults risk having lower educational attainment rates than their parents. Once a country that enabled a person to rise as far as hard work and skill would take them, the United States now finds itself outpaced by many European countries in helping those on the bottom of the economic ladder rise to the middle or top.
Confronted with this challenging environment, the Opportunity Nation coalition got to work, first by listening to the perspectives of low-income Americans and the general public. Americans at all income levels agree that our nation is in danger of no longer being a land of opportunity. They believe the American Dream is becoming harder to achieve, downward mobility has become more common than upward mobility, and today's children will have fewer opportunities than their own generation. In this climate of concern about their futures and our country, they want candidates for President to make expansion of opportunity for all Americans a high priority.
After two years of outreach to policy experts, social entrepreneurs, and leaders in businesses, non-profits, faith-based institutions, and government, we discovered that a bipartisan policy agenda might be more within reach than previously thought. While Republicans might not like to talk about addressing income inequality, they recoil at the thought of a lack of mobility for those who work hard and play by the rules. While Democrats see government investment as a key solution, they also increasingly see the power of markets.
An approach is building to help restore prosperity. The facts are compelling -- only 2 percent of individuals who finish high school, work full time, and have stable families before having children end up poor, while 72 percent of individuals who do none of these things end up poor.
Instead of having a culture of just college access, there is widespread support for creating a focus on college completion by investing in early children education, preserving those gains by boosting high school graduation and college readiness, and using the labor market pull for skilled workers to ensure more Americans obtain a one, two, or four-year post-secondary credential.
Opening multiple pathways to prosperity also means helping those millions of young people who are high school dropouts or otherwise disconnected from school and work. A nation of the second chance also needs to ensure there are pathways from prison to productive work and re-entry into society.
Federal programs too often treat individuals as recipients of benefits with isolated problems. We need to reform these systems to treat individuals and their families holistically and revamp government requirements that are crippling community innovation. Efforts are underway to remove these barriers and to promote healthy marriages, responsible parenting, and pregnancy planning that research tells us are so central to raising children in an environment in which they can thrive.
Productive work and building assets are the foundations of the American Dream, and there are innovative ideas to promote research and development, invest in infrastructure, bridge the digital divide, and expand the earned income tax credit that can help promote economic growth and bridge the asset gap.
A new "opportunity index" will ensure that communities are armed with the leading indicators of opportunity in their communities and can see their annual progress and remaining challenge as they work to increase them.
Americans are taking to the streets over many concerns about the future of their country. We know that inequality will always exist -- but inequality without mobility is completely un-American. Creating an opportunity society is again within our reach.
John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and a co-leader of Opportunity Nation. Mark Edwards is the Executive Director of Opportunity Nation.