America fancies itself the “land of opportunity,” one of the key ways we define ourselves as a nation. Politicians of all stripes like to wax poetic about how their parents came to US shores with next to nothing, and now look — their kid might soon be running the country! Usually these heartwarming tales conclude with the line: “Only in America.”
Anecdotes notwithstanding, however, how good are we really at giving everyone a chance to be a success? It’s possible to answer that question — to measure “opportunity,” in fact. Since 2011, a bipartisan nonprofit called Opportunity Nation has been doing just that, looking at 16 different metrics to come up with a numerical summary of opportunity. It just released the 2014 edition of its Opportunity Index.
It turns out that opportunity varies from place to place. The Index ranks each state by the degree of opportunity it affords citizens. Massachusetts does well, ranking third from the top, just behind Vermont and Nebraska. The worst off is Nevada (maybe those anti-casino gambling folks were on to something). The Index also tracks how states have changed over the last four years (Massachusetts basically stayed the same.)
But the most important lesson I draw from the Index is this: It’s what happens on the local level that most profoundly affects a citizen’s degree of opportunity. And while it is true that much of our national politics is broken, state and local governments continue to function well — meaning there is real optimism that smart state and local policies can change the trajectory of someone’s life.
Massachusetts may rank high, but not all areas within the Commonwealth are equal. The Index gives Middlesex and Norfolk Counties each a grade of A-. The Cape and Islands do well, too, getting Bs and As. The lowest ranked is Hampden County (Springfield) which gets a C. Suffolk County, home to Boston, does relatively poorly too, getting a C+.
How is it that some places do so much better than others? Because the metrics the Index uses are almost all community specific.
The 16 metrics the Index relies upon fall into three broad categories: the economy, education, and community and civic life. These measures include items such as the prevalence of violent crime, the rate of high school graduation, how many students go on to college, the percent of the population with access to the Internet, the number of readily available grocery stores and healthcare centers, the availability of preschool education, and housing prices. These, obviously, are not issues in which the federal government gets deeply engaged. But they are exactly the kinds of things governors, mayors, and town managers can greatly influence.
One place where federal policy matters, of course, is the economy. Measures of unemployment, poverty rates, and median wages play an important role in the Index. A national government that can create the conditions for strong and stable growth will have a profound impact on the opportunities an individual has. (To state the obvious, if there are no jobs available, then the opportunity to move into the middle class is bleak.) But even here, local action matters. States and communities vary widely in the health of their economies, and the reasons for those variations can be tied back to local policies: The quality of a region’s infrastructure, tax rates on businesses, the availability of a well-trained workforce, the ease of permitting, regulatory burdens, and so on. Get these right and business thrives. Jobs get created, wages rise and poverty declines.
The bottom line, simply, is that while what goes on in Washington may get the most media attention, the real action is at the state and local level. If states and communities can focus on improving the 16 measures that go into the Index, their scores will go up. And they will be giving their citizens a meaningful shot at the American Dream.
This column was first published in The Boston Globe on November 18, 2014.