The 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity takes stock of the cultural ecosystem that is needed to sustain freedom and opportunity. Through charts that track social and economic changes, and expert commentary that explains the trends, the Index reports on important indicators in American society and analyzes what they mean for our future.
What We Track
The Index tracks social and economic factors related to culture, poverty and dependence, and general opportunity in America. It monitors trends for 31 indicators, based on regularly updated national data and organized into three categories:
- Cultural indicators, including data on family, religious practice, and civil society;
- Poverty and dependence indicators related to marriage and poverty, workforce participation, and welfare spending and participation; and
- General opportunity indicators, such as measures of education, jobs and wealth, and economic freedom.
How We Track
For each indicator, a chart provides the most recent year of data available as of March 2015 and historical data over the past one, five, and 10 years.1 In the chart, a red line designates the main indicator; in some cases, related data are displayed alongside using grayscale lines. A key above each chart shows the change over one-year, five-year, and 10-year periods (with exceptions in the case of a few indicators).
The primary focus of this Index and the commentators’ contributions is the 10-year change and its direction. That decade-long window allows us to observe what has happened over a longer period of time rather than focusing on short-term variations. This greater time horizon gives readers a feel for what has been happening regardless of changes in government or the state of the economy at any particular time. While examining annual data is helpful in some instances, it may not always be the most reliable approach for determining overall movement of a particular societal trend. This is particularly true with data that are affected by the business cycle, such as labor market and poverty indicators. It is also true for cultural trends that typically change quite gradually.
Commentary Providing Context
One of the distinguishing features of the Index of Culture and Opportunity is expert commentary that interprets the indicator data. Researchers at The Heritage Foundation and scholars and commentators from other organizations offer their insights in introductory essays and short commentaries to accompany a number of the charts.
As Yuval Levin, Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs, observes of this annual Index in his introduction to this volume, “The trends it follows chart the state of the core prerequisites for a flourishing society. The questions it asks are those that conservatives take to be essential to understanding the state of American life.”
Each of the three sections of indicators begins with an overview essay. For the section on cultural indicators, University of Nebraska political philosopher Carson Holloway, visiting fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation, explains why the moral character of society matters. For the poverty and dependence section, Douglas Besharov and Douglas Call of the University of Maryland explore the relationship between labor force disengagement and social safety-net programs. In the final section on opportunity, education researchers Anna Egalite of Harvard and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas examine how school choice shapes children, parents, and society.
Within each section, a variety of experts comment on specific indicators and trends: what they mean and why they matter for culture and opportunity in America. Some write from their decades-long experiences in the field and others from their extensive empirical research. Their commentaries guide non-specialists through the data, parsing the important details but also explaining the broader landscape. Drawing from their wide-ranging expertise, the contributors also incorporate additional relevant data and research that enrich the reader’s overall understanding.
Why It Matters
The Heritage Foundation seeks to advance conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. This Index is part of a set designed to assess our nation’s strength in these areas, along with the Index of Economic Freedom and Index of U.S. Military Strength. Together, these indexes measure America’s economic, social, and military strength to help inform policy and cultural conversations both in Washington and across America.
Policymakers will find the foundational data they need to address issues involving:
- Marriage, family, and civil society;
- Welfare reform;
- Reduced spending;
- Economic growth; and
- The opportunity of individuals in a free society to improve their circumstances.
Individuals can use this Index to inform their own efforts to shape the future of our culture, whether by raising the next generation, devoting efforts to overcoming neighborhood challenges, or participating in the public policy process.
Personal responsibility, concern for our neighbors, and public policy all influence the culture of opportunity. The 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity will equip those who are seeking to advance an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.
— Jennifer A. Marshall is Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and 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.