How We Use Data To Track Economic Opportunity Across The Country

The difference between 14.4 and 11.3 percent seemed small to me until I joined the Opportunity Nation team. The two percentages from our Opportunity Index[1], a tool we jointly developed with our partners at Measure of America, illustrate the number of disconnected youth in the two different places I lived while I was growing up. Now I see those percentages are more than just a number, and every tenth of a percentage point stands for more and more of our young people. And we have data that can help tell the story of what is happening.

My parents both immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean and taught us that relocation was a great experience - an adventure of sorts. It was a chance to build new friendships, connect to new opportunities and learn from a new community. We embarked on this adventure several times throughout my childhood. My siblings and I initially dreaded relocating, but as we grew in age and maturity we welcomed each new adventure. The most impactful move was from North Las Vegas, Nevada to Atlantic City, New Jersey when I was 13 years old.

This move felt like a new opportunity to me. When my family relocated I connected to Expanded Learning programs that provided me with a safe space to receive academic support and no-cost extracurricular activities from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m., hours The Afterschool Alliance reports as a peak time for youth to become victims of crimes, commit crimes or become engaged in drugs, sex and alcohol. Movies like School Daze, and TV shows like A Different World exposed me to the college experience, and I was fortunate to have two great teachers who invested in my future by helping me identify colleges, write personal statements and prepare my college applications.

Harlem neighborhood at night, New York City, USA.

Although I did not understand it at the time, going from a state where overall opportunity access ranked 50th in the nation to a community that ranked 5th in the nation -- according to the 2016 Opportunity Index -- made a great difference in my life as a young adult. (Even with its consistently low ranking, Nevada is the most-improved state on the Index from 2011-2016, along with South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and Washington, D.C., while New Jersey has ranked in the top eight since 2011.)

Young people become disconnected for a variety of reasons, and often live in communities without the proper resources to keep them connected to school and work opportunities. In fact, youth unemployment drains state and federal resources, costing a total of $8.9 billion a year (Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2016). The Opportunity Index rankings about disconnected youth speak to opportunities and access to programs, jobs, resources and other supports that assist young people in remaining connected to their schools and surrounding community. These resources are often the “make or break” differences between youth connection and disconnection.

My journey allowed me to be a part of different communities across the nation and to better understand the importance of being connected during various stages of development. According to the 2016 Opportunity Index, 5.3 million young people ages 16 to 24 are disconnected from work and school. Even with a decrease of 4.5 percent since 2015, this number is still above pre-recession levels. In 2007, 4.9 million young people were disconnected in the United States. In the state I left for my cross-country move, Nevada, the youth disconnection rate is 14.5 percent, or 48,466 young people. The state I moved to, New Jersey, has a youth disconnection rate of 11.4 percent, or 118,177 young people. Even though there’s a higher percentage of youth disconnection in Nevada, the higher number of young people shows that it’s the people who matter, even if it’s the percentages we focus on.

These numbers reflect changes that still need to be made, even though we’ve seen some progress. By working together in a collaborative and bipartisan manner, we can increase access to opportunity and strengthen education and career pathways for teens and young adults across the nation.

A good first step is to be equipped with data and information to assess community successes, challenges and what resources all community members need to thrive. We must then commit to having meaningful, action-oriented conversations with teens, young adults and cross-sector leaders that outline how we can galvanize around policies, programs and other resources that provide teens and young adults with access to opportunity and the community supports needed for success in high school and beyond.

If you’re interested in how your community is doing, or think you might have insight into why certain improvements are happening, I’d strongly encourage you to check out the Opportunity Index and check your scores -- experience the data for yourself. It can be quite eye-opening to compare your current community to one you relocated from, or to get a better handle on what challenges lie ahead for us as a nation, and how we might be able to contribute to a better world for our young people.


Selena Gonzales Jones is Opportunity Nation’s Director of Impact and Community Engagement.

[1] The Opportunity Index, jointly developed by Measure of America and Opportunity Nation, measures 16 key factors that contribute to economic, educational and civic opportunity in communities.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


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