Why Are We Doing So Little to Expand Opportunity for America's Children?

We measure a lot of stuff in our society—stuff like gasoline prices, Hollywood box office numbers and, Heaven help us, Kim Kardashian’s Twitter followers (there are 20.7 million, in case you’re wondering). But it’s rare that we try to measure our progress in achieving the American ideal of opportunity, especially when it comes to our nation’s young people.

In a way, that’s surprising. Both President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address and the Republican response touted expanding opportunity as the central domestic challenge of the 21st century. President Obama declared that “Opportunity is who we are,” and worried aloud that, unless we act, “too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise.” Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, in response, invoked America’s identity as “a nation where we are not defined by our limits, but by our potential,” and decried rising “opportunity inequality.”

Addressing inequality of opportunity is all the more important today, given that, by 2018, young people of color will represent the majority of children in the United States. And by 2030, a majority of new workers will be people of color. Understanding and toppling unequal barriers to opportunity based on race and ethnicity will be ever more crucial to our nation’s prosperity, as well as to fulfilling our national values.

In another way, though, the lack of inquiry on this issue isn’t surprising at all. Measuring opportunity is hard. The idea that every child deserves a fair chance to achieve his or her full potential bridges multiple domains, from education to family income, from a safe and healthy environment to a neighborhood that offers the resources to thrive. And assessing equality of opportunity requires disaggregating information by income, race and ethnicity, geography, and other differences that have too often shaped the life chances of young people from different backgrounds.

Fortunately, the Anne E. Casey Foundation has taken up the challenge. The Foundation’s new report, “Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children,” carefully examines opportunities and outcomes for America’s children across racial and ethnic groups at the national and state levels. Its findings are sobering, but also highly informative for the national mission of greater and more equal opportunity for all. (By way of full disclosure, I was one of many advisers in the development of the report).

Consider some of the findings: While an alarmingly high 45% of all U.S. children live in families with incomes below 200% of the poverty level, that number is 65% for African-American kids, and 64% for Latino and Native American kids. Children of color are also nearly 25% more likely than their White counterparts to live in high poverty neighborhoods, further distancing them from the “opportunity networks” of resources and relationships that help many other kids to thrive.

Although Asian-American children scored the highest on most of the well-being indicators, children of Southeast Asian descent (Burmese, Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese) face disproportionate barriers on the path to economic stability.

Predictably, these and other obstacles measured in the report hold too many kids back in their journey toward happiness and prosperity. By fourth grade, for example, less than half the percentage of Black, Latino, and Native American kids are proficient in reading as are White children. And research shows that the effects of these hurdles tend to grow over time. The point is not that these kids can’t still be successful, but that their opportunity to do so is both inadequate and unequal.

The report makes four policy recommendations to help ensure that all children and their families achieve their full potential:

• Gather and analyze racial and ethnic data to inform polices and decision-making;
• Utilize data and impact assessment tools to target investments to yield the greatest impact for children of color;
• Develop and implement promising and proven programs and practices focused on improving outcomes for children and youth of color; and
• Integrate strategies that explicitly connect vulnerable groups to new jobs and opportunities in economic and workforce development.

The Race for Results report is distressing, but also empowering. It offers not only hard-nosed analysis of the disparate opportunities that we’re currently affording our nation’s children, but also proven approaches to offering greater and more equal opportunity for all. The numbers are in. Now it’s time to act.

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