Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Increase Opportunity for People, Not Just Business

Now that the Affordable Care Act has put Kentucky on the path of improving our horrible health status, let's start working on our #39 rank on the Opportunity Index.
Two years ago, Opportunity Nation, a Boston-based nonprofit, launched the Opportunity Index in partnership with the research group Measure of America. This index is an effort to shift the national conversation around opportunity and to redefine what “opportunity” means—not just in general, but in terms of who benefits. Their measure challenges the business-centered rankings of state opportunity and growth that now dominate the popular press. Their focus is on people—in particular, young people aged sixteen to twenty-four, who are finding opportunities much more difficult to come by today.
The Opportunity Index ranks states based on sixteen indicators that Measure of America codirector Kristen Lewis says are essential to the “infrastructure of opportunity” for individuals. These indicators include not just the basics—the availability of jobs, affordable housing, and quality education—but also what a growing body of research shows is critical to upward mobility: social capital and civic life. These factors make up, at the individual level, the equivalent of the “business-friendly” environment that company-focused rankings measure.

The outcomes under the Opportunity Index approach, needless to say, are radically different from those of  CNBC. Under the 2013 Opportunity Index, Texas—top ranked in opportunities for business by CNBC—ranks thirty-eighth in opportunities for people. Meanwhile, Vermont, which invests nearly double what Texas does per pupil in K-12 education ($15,096 versus $8,562), ranks first on the Opportunity Index and thirty-second by CNBC. On the other hand, some states, such as North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, manage to do right by both their businesses and their people. These three states rank in the top ten under both the Opportunity Index and CNBC, which means that creating opportunity for companies and creating it for individuals are not mutually exclusive propositions. Indeed, the best outcome of all is opportunity for individuals, broadly shared, along with robust economic growth and innovation.

The states that do best on the Opportunity Index are the states that have made investing in their people a top priority, with good schools and early childhood education, real efforts to help young people find jobs when they graduate or to keep them from dropping out, and a commitment to improving opportunity for all.
Well, no wonder Kentucky ranks 39th.

The only categories in which we score better than the national average is percentage of households paying less than 30 percent of income for rent or mortgage, and that's for the same reason we have higher-than average home ownership rates: an inexcusably large portion of Kentucky's housing stock is cheap because it's uninhabitable.
We have more banking institutions than average, but given the record of banks in the past 10 years I don't count that as a positive.
We do have a slightly higher-than-average on-time high school graduation rate, but that's a recent development.

The crime rate in Kentucky is substantially lower than the national average, but that's only because it doesn't count the crimes against the Commonwealth committed daily by Big Coal.
For the most part, Kentucky has been following the bad example of Texas, by spending billions on incentives to bring businesses to the Commonwealth while slashing funding for education, infrastructure, poverty eradication and other investments that create real social capital.

Instead, we should follow the example of Iowa.
The counterexample is the state of Iowa, which ranks sixth on the Opportunity Index. Shortly after the launch of the index, a group of local Iowa organizations, including the Des Moines Area Community College, United Way, AARP, Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Iowa, and others, launched Opportunity Iowa to improve the state’s Opportunity Score, as measured by the Opportunity Index. Among the results is the state’s Skilled Iowa Initiative, an effort launched in June 2012 to match job seekers with employers.
Opportunity Nation’s aspiration is for more states to follow Iowa’s example. By changing the conversation about what’s measured, the Opportunity Index could also change what matters to policymakers’ priorities. The result would be a stronger, fairer, and more prosperous America.
 And a Kentucky that can finally stop saying "Thank god for Mississippi."

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