The character of our culture has a lot to do with opportunity in America. I learned early on, from personal experience, that these two notions are intertwined. My two brothers, my sister and I were reared by our single mom with a work ethic that shaped who I am today.
We struggled economically but my mother provided a model that showed us the importance of work and personal responsibility. To sustain our family, she started a ballroom dancing business in our home. She worked all the time but also expected us to do our share. So each morning, we would get up at 6 a.m. to find our personal list of duties for the day. Passing the time without doing something constructive was not an option.
While we each pulled our weight, the more we did, the more we felt we could do and the more confidence we gained. Growing up in Greenville, S.C., a small textile town, strengthened that feeling. There was a general understanding that each person was important and could make a difference in the lives of others.
My story, and similar stories shared by so many Americans, reveals a fundamental truth about our nation: The presence of opportunities may influence an individual's prospects for the future, but the culture of a family or community affects the extent to which the individual takes advantage of those opportunities.
A brand new publication from The Heritage Foundation, the 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity, presents an at-a-glance view of cultural trends in America such as the marriage rate, religious participation and community involvement. These trends are presented alongside data on poverty, dependence, workforce participation, and educational and employment opportunities.
Many of the indicators in the 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity are not heading in the right direction. Unwed childbearing is increasing. The marriage rate has fallen. The poverty rate is about the same today as it was when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty 50 years ago.
The number of Americans dependent on food stamps has grown dramatically over the last decade. Significant student loan debt burdens college graduates at just the age when young people have typically gotten married and started a family.
But there is good news, too. More students are attending the school of their parents' choosing, thanks to school choice programs. The abortion rate and violent crime rate have decreased. When we focus on these important issues through policy reforms and in community efforts across the country, we can make a difference.
That's what the Index of Culture and Opportunity is designed to do: focus more attention, year by year, on the factors shaping our freedom to flourish. The Index tracks 31 indicators in three categories: culture, poverty and dependence, and general opportunity. The comprehensive report also includes commentary from 21 experts at The Heritage Foundation, other think tanks, universities, and the media to put the trends in context.
While data do not equate with destiny, and each individual makes choices and decisions that impact the course of his or her own life, examining the trends in each of these arenas can reveal some insight into the general direction in which our nation is moving.
From my earliest experiences in life, I learned that circumstances today do not determine how the future will unfold. We can build a better life for ourselves. That is why we have produced the 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity - to show where we are now as a nation and to strengthen our resolve to get America back on track.
- Jim DeMint is president of The Heritage Foundation
Originally distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service