09.19.12

Vermont Tops Opportunity Index, While Nevada Finishes Last

A ‘multipartisan’ campaign aims to increase opportunity by finding new ways to measure it, reports Eliza Shapiro. PLUS: View the interactive map, and see how your state and community match up.

Vermonters have the best chance of economic success and upward mobility, while Nevadans have the deck stacked against them, according to the Opportunity Index issued today by the group Opportunity Nation.

The top five states—Vermont, North Dakota, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nebraska—are far from the nation’s wealthiest states, with only New Hampshire cracking the top 10 in that measure. Vermont, the 20th-wealthiest state by median household income, took the top spot on the Opportunity Index due to the state’s low unemployment (about 5 percent), poverty, and crime rates, and its high rates of both on-time high-school graduation and adults with higher-education degrees.

The highest-ranking county is Falls Church City in Virginia. The Washington, D.C., suburb has a high median household income ($114,409), good access to medical care, and the nation’s highest percentage of residents with a higher-education degree, at 74.3 percent. 

The three states at the bottom of the Opportunity Index—New Mexico, Mississippi, and Nevada—landed there largely due to education, according to the report. Only 56 percent of Nevada’s high-school freshmen graduate on schedule; less than 65 percent of freshmen in Mississippi and New Mexico graduate on time. Mississippi is also home to the lowest-ranked county in terms of opportunity in the nation: rural Tallahatchie County, which is plagued by high crime and low graduation rates.

Despite its high median household income, Nevada’s unemployment rate—11.5 percent—is the nation’s highest. Toddlers and teenagers alike fare poorly in Nevada’s education system; the state has the nation’s lowest preschool enrollment rate and the lowest high-school graduation rate. 

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‘Opportunity Nation’s Executive Director Mark Edwards talks about how the index was created.’

To compile its index, Opportunity Nation—a “multipartisan campaign” dedicated to the notion that “the zip code you’re born into should not determine your chances in life”—tries to assess which states, counties, and cities provide the greatest chance for upward mobility for their citizens by considering local economies, educational systems, community health, and civic life. Among the factors the index weighs are Internet access, access to health care, preschool enrollment, and housing affordability. The group is hosting its second annual summit today in Washington, D.C., which will include remarks from Arianna Huffington; Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat; and Florida Republican Sen. (and RNC keynote speaker) Mario Rubio.

Openness to immigrant populations and cost of living are crucial and often overlooked metrics of opportunity, said Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a powerful nonprofit organization of local business leaders.

“So much attention and debate has been dedicated to education standards issues and education measurements, but increasingly I think we’re sensitive to the fact that the cost of living is a limitation,” Wylde said. “There’s a real sense that the ability to keep up with the cost of living is a huge issue.” Despite its low median income, Brooklyn recently surpassed Honolulu and San Francisco as the second-most expensive county in America, behind only Manhattan.

While New York state ranked 19th on the Opportunity Index, Manhattan had the most inequality of any county, with the top 20 percent of households bringing in 8.4 times more than the bottom 20 percent.

Wylde also said that tolerance is a “key indicator of opportunity” in any city, state, or county. Using New York City as a model, Wylde said the city’s “success has been based on openness to immigrants and a culture that accepts a whole variety of people ... That’s the argument we made for marriage equality, that New York City could not attract the best talent unless we demonstrated a tolerance for everyone’s lifestyles and personal choices.”