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What Does the Opportunity Index Tell Us?

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In the United States, we tend to see opportunity through an economic lens and to assess how people and communities are doing using money as a yardstick. We calculate the poverty rate and track wages; we watch the stock market; we gauge the nation's health quarterly using Gross Domestic Product. When it comes to opportunity--particularly opportunities open to young people to further their education and gain a foothold in the labor market--these money metrics matter, but they don't tell the whole story.

The Opportunity Index, which we at Measure of America created in partnership with Opportunity Nation, uses more than a dozen data points to rank every state and assign almost every county in America an opportunity grade ranging from "A" for excellent to "F" for failing. These data points, which include but go beyond economic indicators, are grouped into three vital dimensions of opportunity: jobs and the economy; education; and community health and civic life.

Opportunity rankings are closely tied to the percentage of young people aged 16 to 24 who are "disconnected," neither in school nor working. Places that shine on the Opportunity Index are much more likely to be states or counties that provide more opportunities for young people to lay the foundation for a rewarding life; in low-scoring states and counties, more young people are adrift and isolated from the anchor institutions of school and work.

The top five states in the 2012 Opportunity Index are (from 1 to 5 respectively): Vermont, North Dakota, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nebraska. The bottom five states are (from 47 to 51 respectively): Alabama, Arizona, New Mexico, Mississippi, Nevada. (A complete list of state rankings and county scores can be found at www.opportunityindex.org. )

One would expect that states at the top of the opportunity list would be the richest ones, the states at the bottom the poorest. But top-ranked Vermont and bottom-ranked Nevada have about the same median household income, straddling the national average of $50,000 per year; in fact, Nevada edges out Vermont by about $1,600. But Nevada's economic standing is built on a shaky foundation; it has some of the lowest levels of educational attainment in the country, the worst scores on civic health and community engagement, and the highest rate of youth disconnection. Too many young people in Nevada are detached from the worlds of school and work and, as a result, face an uncertain future. On the other hand, Vermont's strong commitment to education and history of civic participation such as volunteerism and group membership contribute to one of the country's lowest rates of youth disconnection. North Dakota and Nebraska, both with median incomes below the national average, are also punching well above their economic weight, registering some of the lowest rates of youth disconnection and the highest opportunity scores in the country.

A similar story exists at the county level. Some counties that are average in terms of household income (around $50,000 per year) score a B+ in opportunity, among them San Juan County in Washington, Winneshiek and Dickinson Counties in Iowa, and Yellow Medicine County in Minnesota. Yet other average economic performers are struggling to provide opportunity. Hall and Jones Counties in Georgia, Berkeley County in South Carolina, and Cumberland County in New Jersey score C-, and Lassen County in California has a grade of D+.

The Opportunity Index highlights that income is just one ingredient in creating opportunity for young people. More important is how that money is--or isn't--invested in people. Places that have used education and civic participation to build pathways for young people to transition to a productive adulthood have high opportunity scores; those that have not built a robust infrastructure of opportunity are struggling.

This post is part of a series produced by Opportunity Nation for The Huffington Post in conjunction with their Week of Action, a seven-day collaborative exercise demonstrating that every American can play a role in the shared effort to restore opportunity and social mobility in our country. More information is available at Opportunity Nation.