Where is opportunity in America?

This report outlines how the Opportunity Index works.

2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of the nation’s War on Poverty, proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address in 1964. At the time, with 19% of the US population living at or below the poverty level, the Administration introduced a number of federally funded safety-net programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps, which to this day sustain and support the neediest in our nation.

Our current poverty rate of 15% may be a slight improvement over 1964, but it is also well above the nation’s low of 11% in 1973. In addition, the very nature of poverty has changed, becoming a legacy that is passed down from one generation to the next. The New York Times recently ran a series, The Invisible Child, about a young girl living in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood who, along with her siblings, represents the third-generation in her family to be trapped in the same community, and the same abject poverty. Does this mean, after 50 years of battling, we have lost the war? I don’t think so – but we do need to rethink our war plans and adapt the weapons we use, if we are to fight this new brand of poverty. A lingering recession, growing income equality, and other factors, such as increasing natural disasters, are all challenges that must be addressed with new approaches.

The key factors determining Opportunity Index scores are Economy, Education and Community.

The key factors determining Opportunity Index scores are Economy, Education and Community.

One organization with some interesting ideas is Opportunity Nation, a consortium of 275 nonprofit, community and business organizations across the US that believes: “The places where people live are pivotal to the opportunities open to them. Some communities have characteristics that open many windows of opportunity for their residents; others do not.” In October, the group issued its third annual Opportunity Index, which ranks the 50 states based on a series of interconnected economic, educational and civic indicators that influence the ability of poor and low-income people to lift themselves out of poverty. Are there good jobs? Do most young people graduate from high school on time? Are people actively engaged and involved in their own communities?

I took a look at how New York State fared in the latest Index. Our State ranked #20, with an “opportunity score” of 54.6. [Vermont ranked #1 with a score of 65.9, while Nevada came in last with a score of 37.9.] If New York aspires to improve its ratings, we have work to do. Sixteen percent of New Yorkers live below the poverty line, a rate higher than the national average and far above Vermont’s 11.5%. Even more troubling, 14.4% of New York’s youth aged 16-24 years are not in school and not working, as compared to 8.6% in Vermont. The national data shows there is a close correlation between the percentage of those living in poverty and the number of “disconnected” young people who drop out of school and cannot find or hold a job.

According to the Opportunity Index, New York State has a 54.6 Opportunity Score.

According to the Opportunity Index, New York State has a 54.6 Opportunity Score.

The correlation between poverty and education was also highlighted in another recent study, the 2013 Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, which was established by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to combat the “crisis of the unrepresented.” Similar to the Opportunity Index, this report casts a wide net by identifying the areas of greatest need for civil legal services, and making recommendations for the resources necessary to address them. This year, the taskforce presented compelling evidence that poor New Yorkers need help if they are to transcend their circumstances and improve their lives. This includes access to “the essentials of life:” health care, education, subsistence income, housing, and stable family situations.

The report includes testimonies from scores of civic, government and business leaders. One in particular struck me – that given by Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. Her words put a human face on the data linking poverty, educational opportunities, and the benefits of civil legal services:

“From an educator’s perspective, I can tell you that the consequences of the unmet civil legal needs of New York’s families are far-reaching and devastating for our students… these problems impact their ability to learn and, in some cases, their ability or desire to attend school. We need to make sure that all students and their parents or caregivers are able to fully engage in and benefit from their educational experience””including those whose families are facing eviction or foreclosure, those who lack access to needed health services, and those whose families struggle with domestic violence and addiction””all of whom could be helped with the provision of legal services.”

The Opportunity Index and Judge Lippman’s nationally recognized model for action are two examples of the kind of innovation and energy needed to address today’s intractable brand of poverty – and overcome a Congress seemingly determined to erode the availability of the effective safety-net programs established long ago. As we enter 2014, I am looking back to Lyndon Johnson’s famous words, and am making a New Year’s resolution to do whatever I can to wage my own “unconditional war” against poverty.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge