Spotlight Exclusives

A Shared Plan to Repair the Broken Rungs on the Ladder of Opportunity

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In 1931, the great American writer and historian James Truslow Adams coined the term “the American Dream” in his novel, The Epic of America. This dream, Adams declared, was predicated on life being “better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability of achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


In 2012, 81 years after Adams conceived the words that would make up our national ethos, only six percent of children born to parents at the bottom of the socioeconomic milieu make it to the top. Children in many European countries have greater socioeconomic mobility than those in the United States. And although we lead the world in educational attainment among 55 to 64 year olds, we rank just fourth among 35 to 44 year olds and 10th among 25 to 34 year olds.


How distant is Adams۪ dream from the reality of America today?


Opportunity Nation was created to help answer this very question, and over the past year Opportunity Nation has been working to accelerate economic mobility in America. We۪ve forged a coalition of more than 250 partner organizations (including Spotlight); hosted regional summits on opportunity on college and university campuses across the country; met with dozens of elected officials to sound the alarm about declining mobility in our country; and are actively engaging with political candidates across the divide about the roles they can play in advancing mobility. 


We also released the inaugural Opportunity Index, the nation۪s first and only measure designed to provide a snapshot of what opportunity looks like in our states and communities. The Index combines more than a dozen data points to rank every state and assigns almost every county in America a first of its kind Opportunity Score. Using this data, Americans can learn the myriad of factors that support or inhibit opportunity are trending in their communities, and can help catalyze community action with clear goals and measurement in mind.


In just the past year alone, the Index has yielded some startling takeaways for those concerned about improving opportunity nationwide. Perhaps most prominently, the Index showed that one of the most prominent factors influencing an areas opportunity score is the number of youth not working or not in a career.


Research shows that if this cohort of individuals miss this early rung on the ladder of opportunity that it is much more difficult to climb the ladder later in life. And today’s youth not in school and not working cost the US nearly $93 billion in lost revenues and social services. 


To help repair this early and critical rung on the ladder of opportunity, and ensure that the rising generation is equipped with the skills needed to compete in the current and future economies, Opportunity Nation will host its second national Summit this September in Washington, DC.


We will be putting forth a bold set of ideas that illuminate pathways to success beyond just a four-year degree, including those that link education to work. We will also work to make post-secondary pathways more affordable. We will be asking businesses that are leading the way through education, training, hiring and promoting to share their lessons and deepen their commitments to the 21st century American workforce. And we will hear from leading elected officials from across the political spectrum about their plans to create communities of opportunity across the country.


Opportunity Nation will also release the second annual Opportunity Index at the Summit, unveiling new data that will spotlight the progress (or decline) that communities have experienced since the inaugural results were released last year.  

Our nation will not be successful in the future if only the most privileged have access to the American Dream. Ensuring that today۪s youth can grasp the rungs on the ladder of opportunity is a moral and social imperative, and one that we believe we can achieve by working together.


To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Mark Edwards is the Executive Director of Opportunity Nation.



The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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