Boston’s mayoral candidates talk about “two Bostons” — one rich, one poor. But there’s a third Boston too, a much bigger piece altogether: everyone who is in between. The real challenge for any city or town is making sure those at the bottom rungs of the ladder can climb their way up so that, while they may not necessarily be wealthy, they’re doing well enough.
That, in its essence, is the American Dream: the notion that the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where if we work hard and play by the rules, we — or at least our children — can make it. The circumstances into which we are born shouldn’t dictate how far we can rise.
It’s a nice sentiment, one that’s true for some, not true for others. But it is also something over which local communities can exert much control.
Just released is the 2013 version of the Opportunity Index, a clever statistical measure of the American Dream. It makes for fascinating reading, ranking states by the opportunity they afford their citizens. Cow-infested Vermont, it turns out, is the land of opportunity, scoring first place. Nevada comes in dead last. New Hampshire (No. 4) and Massachusetts (No. 7) do well, while New York (“If I can make it there. . . ”) is in the middle of the pack at 20th.
The index is put together by two nonprofits. One, Opportunity Nation, is a local creation, the brainchild of onetime US senatorial candidate Alan Khazei. The second, Measure of America, is a project of the Social Science Research Council. Both are nonpartisan, using data and not rhetoric (now there’s a refreshing idea!) to make their points.
The index relies on three broad factors to come up with what it calls an Opportunity Score — a measure from zero to 100. Two of those factors are obvious: economic well-being (such as unemployment rates, median incomes, and poverty rates) and education (preschool availability, graduation rates, and percent in higher ed). If good jobs are available and people are sufficiently educated to hold those jobs, then that equates to an opportunity for people to earn a living and become part of mainstream America.
The third factor is less apparent: civic life. That would include elements such as the number of grocery stores and primary-care doctors in a community, levels of volunteerism, and even the degree to which adults are members of groups such as the Knights of Columbus or, for that matter, Red Sox Nation. Vibrant communities — “high levels of social capital,” in the words of Mark Edwards, Opportunity Nation’s executive director — create connections among people that break down barriers to social and economic mobility.
The index also measures opportunity by county (at some future point, it hopes to be city- and town-specific). Even within Massachusetts, it turns out, all is not equal. Suffolk County — home of Boston — ranks relatively poorly, with a score of 50.8. Nearby Norfolk and Middlesex counties, on the other hand, score far higher, at 65.0 and 63.8. To a degree, that reflects the fact that both counties are better off, with high incomes, quality schools and the like. Be that as it may, the bottom line is a child born and raised in Norfolk or Middlesex has a better shot at life than one from Suffolk.
The good news is that Opportunity Scores are fluid. Granted, a national recession will bring down opportunity for everyone. But many of the elements in the Index are local in nature. Improving schools, making housing cheaper, and bringing down crime will increase opportunity for all. There are also elements — such as the availability of grocery stores — that might seem outside a mayor’s job description. Yet one of Mayor Tom Menino’s least noticed legacies was his success at cajoling big retailers to open up stores in so-called “food deserts.” He knew how to use the bully pulpit of his position, and it’s a lesson for the next mayor: A city’s quality of life ties directly to the American Dream.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.