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We Know Geography Matters Too Much: It's Time to Change That

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Opportunity Nation is thrilled about Monday's front page New York Times story "In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters", which brought into sharp relief one of the most troubling facts of American life today -- all too often your zip code determines your economic destiny. This harsh reality contradicts our cherished belief in the American Dream -- that we are a country that rewards hard work with a better life for each successive generation.

But the evidence is clear that we have less economic mobility than we think we do. Low-income children born in a dozen other wealthy countries stand a better chance of improving their lot in life than U.S. children who are born into poverty.

We can and must do better. That is why Opportunity Nation -- a bipartisan, cross-sector campaign of 250 organizations that reach 100 million Americans -- launched in 2011 to develop private and public sector solutions to expand economic mobility. It's also why we partnered with nonpartisan, Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Resource Council, to create the Opportunity Index. This unique tool measures 16 factors that contribute to a region's capacity to provide opportunity to its residents in three domains: economic, educational and civic. These are the pillars that make mobility possible.

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The Opportunity Index is an open source, web-based tool that gives communities a way to assess the level of opportunity they provide their residents, and to allow them to compare how they stack up against other communities. Already this tool has been used by mayors, state budget policy makers, grassroots advocates, nonprofits and educational institutions to bring diverse stakeholders together under the common banner of increasing opportunity. And, because Opportunity Index Scores are released annually, leaders and policymakers can track their progress against the goal of increasing opportunity in their communities.

If we're going to increase opportunity and mobility, we have to measure it. We believe that the study released Monday by leading economists is an important contribution to the growing movement to increase economic opportunity for all in our country. The researchers' findings reinforce four pivotal factors that correlate with increased opportunity:

  • Prevalence of mixed income neighborhoods as opposed to high concentrations of poverty
  • More two parent households
  • Better schools
  • Higher levels of civic engagement

The Opportunity Index measures several of the same factors, and illustrates how different communities struggle or succeed to provide high levels of opportunity to their residents.

Perhaps the most powerful finding of the Opportunity Index is the affect of disconnected youth on a region's Opportunity Index Score. The lower the number of young people ages 16-24 who are not in school and not working, the higher the region's score. This is why Opportunity Nation has focused our advocacy and policy work in 2013 on our Shared Plan, to help find meaningful educational and career pathways for youth.

Today, 6.7 million young people in the United States are disconnected from school and work. Our bipartisan plan would ensure more young people graduate from high school, enroll in some form of postsecondary education and embark on meaningful educational and career pathways. It encourages businesses to mentor and employ young people. It advocates investing in programs that work, demanding pay-for-performance measures.

We support shared ideas that will advance this plan including two bipartisan bills: the American Dream Accounts Act that would provide college savings plans, financial and college preparation guidance to low income students and their families and the CAREER Act that aligns job training programs with regional employment needs.

Expanding opportunity and increasing economic mobility for more Americans is the key to advancing our country's economic and global competitiveness. This week's major study on barriers to economic mobility offers powerful and new evidence that living in different communities means having vastly different levels of opportunity, a disparity that hurts all of us.

This post is part of the ongoing coverage co-produced by The Huffington Post and Opportunity Nation, highlighting solutions to the country's growing opportunity gap. The coverage utilizes the latter's Opportunity Index, the nation's first -- and only -- tool that measures the impact a geographic place has on each individual's economic mobility. It identifies a comprehensive set of indicators that, when taken together, measure the amount of opportunities available in communities. To see all the coverage so far, click here.