Opinion

Opinion | Alan Khazei and John Bridgeland

Our opportunity nation

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Democrats and Republicans rarely converge to offer solutions in a presidential election year, but addressing America’s opportunity gap is the exception. In the buildup to the 2016 election, something remarkable is happening — leaders, policymakers, academics, and those living in poverty are joining together to propose answers to the greatest threat to America’s creed.

When conservative social scientist Charles Murray wrote “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010’’ and Harvard’s Robert Putnam penned “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis’’ within the span of a few years, both were diagnosing the causes of inequality by class in America and pointing to similar trends in family structure, parenting, schooling, neighborhoods, and economic insecurity. Both signaled that upward mobility had nearly grinded to a halt.

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But the debate didn’t stop there. Putnam convened top experts to highlight what the best evidence told us about boosting opportunity among low-income children and families, and leaders emerged with plans to help. The American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution joined forces on a compelling plan. Speaker Paul Ryan and the House GOP envisioned A Better Way for more Americans to climb the ladder of mobility. The Center for American Progress released a plan to cut poverty and expand opportunity. Young leaders who experienced poverty proposed solutions, emphasizing “love, responsibility, forgiveness, empathy, community empowerment, and accountability for results.”

These efforts could not come at a better time. One in three Americans still live in poverty or on the economic brink, and half will experience at least one year of poverty or teeter on the edge during their working years. For the first time in 50 years, a majority of public school children live in poverty, facing a future that lacks economic mobility.

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Children born poor tend to remain in poverty throughout their lives, with fewer than 5 percent reaching the top income bracket. Family background is now more predictive of social capital and mobility than ever before. Even high-achieving, low-income students have worse outcomes than their middle- and higher-income peers from pre-K through employment. According to the Opportunity Index, 5.5 million 16-24 year olds are disconnected from school and work, leaving potential unused and costing taxpayers billions every year.

More than 120 organizations have had enough and joined together to do something unprecedented: agree on six clear goals that, if met with evidence-based solutions, would boost opportunity for millions of children, youth, and families struggling in poverty.

It is unacceptable in America that 16 million children do not get the food they need every day, and 1.3 million K-12 students are homeless. Both of these problems create stigma and disruption and threaten success in school, work, and life. Bipartisan efforts are emerging from the National Commission on Hunger and Share Our Strength to end childhood hunger, and from the Raikes Foundation and National Association for the Education of Homeless Youth to address student homelessness. Within a decade, no child should be hungry or homeless in America.

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After 30 years of flat-lining high school graduation rates and more than 1 million students dropping out every year, confining most to a life of poverty, America’s Promise Alliance and its partners marshaled an evidence-based plan of action and targeted the 15 percent of schools where 50 percent of dropouts were found. Over the last decade, graduation rates have risen more than 11 percentage points, with 2 million more students graduating rather dropping out. We need to achieve a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020.

The Lumina Foundation and Georgetown University recognized early that most jobs will require some form of post-secondary education and have inspired the goal to double quality post-secondary degrees, certificates, and industry credentials within a decade. Many leaders, nonprofits, and now companies like IBM’s P-TECH are innovating around the pipeline from high school to post-secondary education to employment. In addition, plans have emerged to reconnect 1 million “Opportunity Youth” to school and work each year within a decade.

America cannot be a great nation without active, informed citizens who trust one another and solve problems together. Communities are fraying under the lowest levels of social trust in a generation. One big idea to change this is a year of national service to unite 18-28 year olds from different backgrounds in solving public problems, while cultivating the skills they need in the workplace. By the 250th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence in 2026, America should have 1 million youth annually in national service.

The ingenuity and creativity of our people have always powered us forward. The American dream is in crisis. Let’s renew our commitment to become an “Opportunity Nation.”

Alan Khazei is Founder and CEO of Be The Change, and co-founder of City Year. John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic, and former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
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