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Eva Shang Headshot

Restoring the Ladder of Opportunity

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With the release of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" at the top of the box office this last weekend, poverty and inequality are made all too real through the movie screen.

However, the fantasy land of Panem is not so far off from the landscape of America's current social and economic inequality. The Hunger Games are real. The Hunger Games are here. And what the Hunger Games mean is the death of the American Dream.

The Harry Potter Alliance, a US-based coalition harnessing story and pop culture to inspire social change, released a viral video reminding us of the stark reality of inequality and oppression. Some statistics cited in the video: 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of the country's wealth. 80 percnt of the US population controls just 7 percent of the country's wealth. "At its core," said Harry Potter Alliance founder Andrew Slack, "The Hunger Games is about economic inequality. The fictional future of Panem is upon us already: 25 million Americans can't find full time jobs, 22 percent of children live in poverty and the top 1 percent control 40 percent of our nation's wealth."

This bleak economic reality is further documented by the recent launch of the Opportunity Index, created by Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, the nation's first -- and only -- tool designed to provide a snapshot of what opportunity looks like at the state and county levels. Measuring factors in three areas, economy, education, and community, ranging from preschool enrollment to income inequality, from volunteerism to access to healthy food, the Opportunity Index paints a full picture of how your zip code can affect your access to opportunity.

And the results are startling.

Today, only 6 percent of children born to parents at the bottom of the income distribution make it to the top. For the first time ever, young adults risk having lower educational attainment rates, on average, than their parents. Seven thousands students drop out of high school each school day, despite education's role as the primary level for social mobility.

For centuries, the lure of the American Dream and economic opportunity has drawn immigrants from all countries, all in the hope of pursuing a better life. They had faith in the ladder of opportunity, in their ability to succeed throughout their lifetime with hard work, education, and perseverance. As Amy Tan described in the Joy Luck Club, "In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you." That's the dream that brought my parents, and all the generations of immigrants before them, to these coasts.

And now, this ladder of opportunity behind the quintessential American Dream is broken.

Luckily, Opportunity Nation has an answer. A bipartisan, cross-sector national campaign made up of more than 250 non-profits, businesses, educational institutions, community organizations, and individuals, Opportunity Nation's mission is to rebuild the ladder of opportunity, one critical rung at a time. As an Opportunity Scholar representative for Opportunity Nation, I believe that the zip code you are born into shouldn't determine your chances for success.

Armed with the knowledge from the Opportunity Index, which ranks every state and assigns almost every county in America an "Opportunity Score," engaged citizens and leaders at the local, state, and federal levels can identify concrete solutions to improve economic mobility at the ground level -- and track their progress over time.

And the first plan of action? Strengthening career pathways for young adults and promoting postsecondary educational success.

Young people create an undeniable ripple effect across every aspect of community life. For example, Opportunity Index research reveals the percentage of young adults engaged in school and work is one of the most important influences on a state's Opportunity Score. With fifteen percent of people aged 16 to 24 in the United States are neither working nor in school. That's 6 million disconnected youth, not being trained for the jobs that employers require. Not everyone can succeed through the standard mode of pursuing higher education straight out of high school -- alternative pathways must be available for young people starting their careers. That's the first major repair needed to restore economic mobility.

Restoring the American Dream takes a society's collaboration -- and securing career pathways for young adults is merely the first step. By harnessing statistics and research through the Opportunity Index and by capitalizing on our young people, we can recreate the America that my parents sought when they immigrated here: one in which anyone could succeed through hard work. One in which your zip code didn't define your destiny.

As we flock to the movie theaters this weekend for a brief escape into the world of the Hunger Games, remember the inequality here in America that is all too real.

Remember that unlike fantasy, we have the power to change it.