July 24, 2015 | Commentary on Family and Marriage, Economy, Poverty and Inequality, Education

Tracking opportunity for all

"Opportunity for all" is a goal Americans from across the political spectrum can embrace. But it won't be more than an aspiration unless we know whether we're making progress toward that goal.

To do that, as the management adage says, we need to measure what matters. That means taking stock of the social and economic factors shaping opportunity in America today.

That's what the 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity is designed to do. Just released from The Heritage Foundation's Institute of Family, Culture, and Opportunity, the Index tracks trends from marriage to volunteering to welfare dependence to student loan debt.

After collecting data on 31 social and economic indicators, and hearing from more than a dozen commentators, here are the conclusions of the 2015 Index:

First, culture matters. High school students in an achievement-oriented environment are more likely to avoid risky behaviors and make healthy choices for their future. Communities that champion marriage will see stronger families and better well-being for their children. And those who place educational choice in parents' hands can expect to see improved student outcomes.

A culture that values care for neighbors and emphasizes the dignity of work and self-sufficiency will depend less on government and be more upwardly mobile. Freedom and opportunity depend on the character of our culture.

Second, correctly diagnosing the root causes of our social challenges is crucial. Conventional wisdom holds that social and economic problems are caused by "the system," which is why so many "solutions" hinge on more government intervention through increased spending and greater regulation. But failing to address the true sources of a problem is likely only to exacerbate it.

Take the alleviation of poverty, for example. In the War on Poverty, rather than focusing on incentives that would address family breakdown and non-work, the government opted for spending as its primary strategy. Decades of expanding government anti-poverty programs and trillions of dollars later, poverty has not declined significantly.

The same can be said of education. Years of increasing expenditure and expanding federal intervention have not led to greater achievement. Recent innovations in educational choice, however, have already shown promising results. No wonder the educational opportunity movement is gaining popularity: the number of students participating in private school choice programs tripled between 2004 and 2014.

Third, paying attention to the cultural ecosystem is critical. In an environment of mutual care, the well-being of individuals, communities and society at large is understood to be interdependent. Issues are interconnected as well: Changes in one sector can reverberate across the entire system. Marriage, family, child well-being, education, employment, poverty, economic mobility and growth, and entrepreneurship all relate to each other.

Fourth, consequences are lasting but not irreversible. Social and economic trends, good or bad, may last for decades. Americans today are still living with the consequences of the sexual revolution in the 1960s and '70s. Divorce, abortion and unwed birth rates accelerated after that. But even such seemingly unrelenting trends can reverse course through policy and cultural efforts.

The abortion rate, for example, has fallen back to levels not seen since before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The divorce rate plateaued and then started to decline (although it still remains high). The crime rate has dropped, and a greater proportion of younger high school students are remaining abstinent.

The 1996 welfare reform ended entitlement in one broken government program and helped able-bodied adults back to work. Selfless grassroots leaders, what Bob Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise calls "healing agents," who make themselves available 24/7 for the long haul, continue to revitalize and restore hope to their neighborhoods.

With perseverance, we can accomplish positive change. Policy prescriptions addressing the factors measured in the Index of Culture and Opportunity can move us toward achieving true opportunity for all.

 - Jennifer A. Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and is also the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Christine Kim is a policy analyst in the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

Christine Kim Policy Analyst
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

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