The Opportunity Index: Does your Zip Code Matter More than your GPA?

Opportunity Nation seeks to make sure that all Americans, no matter where they're from, have the opportunity to get ahead in life and find economic success. (photo of Civicorps graduation in Oakland, CA)

Editor’s note: The Corps Network is a Coalition Partner of the Opportunity Nation campaign. Elizabeth Clay Roy, Deputy Director of Opportunity Nation, spoke at a plenary session on youth unemployment at The Corps Network National Conference, February 2013.

Children all across the country are told that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. America is supposed to be the “Land of Opportunity,” but in reality, what is the likelihood that a child from Starr County, TX will grow up to be a scientist, or a lawyer, or the president of a Fortune 500 company? What are the chances that a budding entrepreneur in Loudon County, VA will be able to start a small business?

It’s no secret that where you grew up and where you live can factor enormously into your chances for upward economic mobility. While some people come from neighborhoods with safe streets, good schools, and plenty of desirable jobs, other people come from neighborhoods with no grocery stores, no doctors, and high crime rates. Simply put, some communities offer residents all the amenities and resources needed for personal success, while other communities offer limited pathways to opportunity.

Two organizations, Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, teamed up to create a tool that measures how much opportunity is available in every state and just about any given county in the U.S. This tool, the Opportunity Index, gives a numeric score and a letter grade to about 2,900 counties. All 50 states and the District of Columbia also received numeric scores.

To generate these scores, Measure of America compiled data from the U.S. Census and other publically available records to look at how each state and county fared in three dimensions: Jobs and Local Economy; Education; and Community Health and Civic Life. Rather than just looking at the unemployment rate and the poverty rate, the Opportunity Scores generated by the Index encompass multiple factors that have been demonstrated to impact academic and economic chances.

 “We felt like there was a limited dialogue about how we were doing as a country economically,” said Elizabeth Clay Roy, Deputy Director of Opportunity Nation. “If the official unemployment rate goes up or down, that is significant for a few thousand people, but if new jobs are all low wage that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be a serious impact on economic opportunity…It’s not just about the job you have today. It’s about a number of factors at the community level that can be a stepping stone to opportunity. For example, if you want to start a business but there are no banking institutions to give you a loan, that’s going to limit opportunity. If you have trouble concentrating in school because you’re so concerned about the violence happening in the streets, that’s going to impact opportunity.”

Opportunity Nation is not a research organization; it is a bipartisan national campaign made of community groups, faith-based organizations, non-profits, businesses and educational institutions working to expand economic opportunity. The Index gives Opportunity Nation information to support their campaign and a tool to help spread awareness about America’s opportunity gap.

“Part of what spurred our decision to create this Index was a conversation we had with a young man in New York City as a part of our National Listening Tour who said that he felt like the zip code he grew up in was more important than his GPA in determining his life chances,” said Ms. Clay Roy. “This wasn’t a young man who was trying to excuse a low GPA. He had done well in high school, but he was trying to say that those grades were less important than the school he went to in terms of his chances of getting ahead. We realized how important it was to consider place and community as indicators of opportunity.”

The three dimensions that factor into a state or county Opportunity Score (Jobs and Local Economy, Education, and Community Health and Civic Life) are broken down into numerous indicators of opportunity that can be measured with the data compiled by Measure of America. For example, to see how a region is doing in the Jobs and Local Economy dimension, the Index looks at (among other things) the unemployment rate, the poverty rate, and how many banking institutions there are per 1,000 residents. The Education Dimension looks at preschool enrollment, the on-time high school graduation rate, and the number of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree. The Community Health and Civic Life dimension looks at (among other things) violent crime rates, the number of primary care physicians, and the number of young adults who are unemployed and not in school.

So how much opportunity is available for that child in Starr County, TX? How much opportunity is available to that entrepreneur in Loudon County, VA? Starr County received a D minus on the Opportunity Index, while Loudon County received an A minus. Starr has a median household income of less than $25,000 and nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Loudon County on the other hand has a median household income of over $115,000 and a poverty rate of only about 3 percent. However, the results of these two indicators are perhaps not what resulted in the two counties having such drastically different scores on the Opportunity Index.

The Opportunity Index map. The darker blue areas are places with higher Opportunity Scores. The lighter blue areas are places with lower Opportunity Scores.


 “When we initially did the Index we thought that the indicator that would be most highly correlated with a state Opportunity Score would be median income, or the poverty rate – something that indicated how wealthy the state is. But as it turned out, the indicator that most correlated with a state’s opportunity score was the percentage of 16 – 24 year olds not in school and not working,” said Ms. Clay Roy. “In a state like Nevada, where you have a high proportion of young people not in school and not working, you get a very low score. In states like Vermont and Minnesota where you have more young people in school and working, you have higher opportunity scores.”

The Opportunity Index tells us that places like Starr have limited opportunity, but what can be done to help such communities raise their scores? How can we help a state like Nevada be more like Vermont or Minnesota? As part of their campaign to build stronger, more equitable local economies, Opportunity Nation and its coalition members are providing numerous forms of assistance to communities that want to raise their scores.

According to Elizabeth Clay Roy, the first thing Opportunity Nation can do to help a community like Starr is provide more detailed information about how their score was compiled. With specific data, Opportunity Nation can help communities pinpoint policy changes or initiatives that could help raise their score.

“We’re looking to engage elected officials to become aware of these scores and begin governing for opportunity and start to think about making some of their policy decisions in line with advancing opportunity,” said Ms. Clay Roy.   

A second way Opportunity Nation is helping communities is with technical assistance and mini grants. Opportunity Nation has helped make connections between some of their coalition members and local community leaders. For example, they have helped leaders in Hampden County, MA connect with The Springfield Institute and a number of nearby colleges in order to develop plans to address the county’s Opportunity Score. The $1,000 mini grants Opportunity Nation provides generally go towards kicking off local events or service projects that could increase Scores.

Another thing Opportunity Nation has done is simply make sure that stakeholders know about the Opportunity Index. Opportunity Nation works with community leaders and media on a local level to spread awareness. The Index has also received national media attention; since its launch in 2011 the Index has been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, in Newsweek, and on the Huffington Post website. They hope to continue to build media attention and awareness with each new release of the Index.

“Ultimately we believe that no one leader or one institution alone can increase opportunity scores. We think this tool has value for elected officials and institutional leadership, but also for community members of all stripes,” said Ms. Clay Roy. “I think only when there is interest from every side will there really be change. Some elected officials may learn about the Index from an organization like ours and get interested, but I think more likely they’re going to be more influenced when their constituents begin to say we’re disappointed in our score and we know we can be a community that’s better than a C and we want to work together to change this.”

Ms. Clay Roy stressed the importance of making sure the Opportunity Index reached people who are passionate about volunteering, service, and mentoring. Volunteer projects and mentoring can be very important parts of increasing a score in a specific dimension or moving a county’s grade from a C to a B. These kinds of projects are also important in how they help people build a connection with their community and feel a sense of responsibility for how their community scores on the Index.

Opportunity Nation hopes to see an across the board 10 percent increase in opportunity within the next 10 years. They created the Shared Plan to lay out policy and nonpolicy ideas that they believe will lead to increased scores. The Shared Plan’s recommendations include boosting mentoring, engaging employers in connecting with young people, and reauthorizing and reforming the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. 

“Even just between 2011 and 2012 there were real changes. We saw improvement for 40 percent of counties in terms of their grade,” said Ms. Clay Roy. “We see the Opportunity Index as a community awareness and advocacy tool, so we’re really excited that a lot of our grassroots partners around the country have gotten excited or incensed by their Index scores and have started to build local coalitions around community organizations to try and increase their scores…Community organizations have always been at the forefront of advancing opportunity and mobility and economic security. Adding this data just arms them even more with the tools they need to do their work well.”

The Opportunity Index has been released with data for 2011 and 2012. Opportunity Nation plans to continue to release the Index with updated information.  

Click here for a PDF describing the Opportunity Index. 

Starting Over Out West; How Corey Brown made a future for himself with the help of Mile High Youth Corps

Where are they now? – Catching up with 2010 Corpsmember of the Year,

Corey Brown

Corey receiving his award at The Corps Network 2010 National Conference in Washington, DC. Pictured with David Muraki, California Conservation Corps, and Brigid McRaith, Mile High Youth Corps

Corey Brown, a former member of Mile High Youth Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2010 for his commitment to service. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about Corey and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2010 National Conference.

Corey Brown has one regret about his service with Mile High Youth Corps of Denver Colorado: he wishes he had joined sooner.

“I wish I’d looked into the Corps a long time ago,” said Corey. “…I feel like I could’ve had a better grasp on who I am as a person and also what I like and what I don’t like.”

Corey’s path to the Youth Corps was not an easy one. With his mother suffering from a severe mental illness and his father dealing with serious physical disabilities, Corey had to assume many responsibilities at a young age. He did the family shopping, cleaned the house, and earned money to pay the bills. Even while he was in college he continued to juggle a full course load, work, and family obligations. As Corey said, he was burnt out, depressed, and worried that he didn’t have room to make any mistakes.

Corey realized it wasn’t healthy or productive for him to live this way. Fortunately, one of Corey’s mentors moved to Colorado and offered him a place to stay in Denver. Corey knew he owed it to himself to at least consider the offer. He eventually decided that the best thing he could do for himself was leave school, leave New Jersey, and head out to Colorado.

“It was a really, really hard decision. I basically just got up and left with the clothes on my back and a few things and a little bit of money in my bank account. It took me probably a good year to really finally make the decision and go all in,” said Corey. “I just felt like I was stuck and kind of helpless. I felt like this opportunity, even though it was a pretty huge risk, I only had to gain. I couldn’t really go any further down from where I was at.”

Not long after arriving in Colorado, Corey was referred to Mile High Youth Corps. During his tenure with the Corps, from May 2009 until November 2010, Corey mainly worked with the Corps’s water conservation project. His main job was to install high-efficiency toilets in low-income households throughout Denver. Though Corey admits the work wasn’t glamorous, he learned a lot about the importance of water resources.

Corey was eventually promoted to be a Mile High “alumni mentor.” Having the responsibility to motivate other Corpsmembers and help them work through their problems left a big impression on Corey. He has considered finishing his bachelor’s degree in psychology so he can one day become a licensed counselor.

“I think I look back at my own personal story and see how having mentors and counselors in my life meant a lot. If I didn’t have those few people I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” said Corey. “I wouldn’t have the confidence I now have. I wouldn’t be as successful. So knowing that one person can make such a big difference in somebody else’s life is what interests me in this work the most.”

After leaving Mile High, Corey spent about a year weatherizing homes in Denver and Arapahoe County with the organization Veterans Green Jobs. He then transitioned to his current position as a maintenance tech with a nonprofit that provides housing for single-parent families facing homelessness. Corey is responsible for helping with the upkeep of the organization’s 100,000 square feet of property. In his spare time, Corey volunteers his maintenance skills by providing general upkeep services for a local church. He is also looking into volunteering with the Denver rape crisis center – an organization he feels strongly about and has donated to in the past.

Right now, Corey is focused on becoming a wind energy technician. He begins classes with Ecotech Institute in Colorado in January 2013. His goal for now is to get his degree from Ecotech in the next two years and start building his career as a wind tech.

Corey says his decision to pursue a career in the green sector was inspired by his time with the Corps. He was always interested in the environment, but his Corps experience made him more passionate about conservation. However, a career path is not the only thing Corey gained from Mile High, however.

“I think probably the biggest impact was on my confidence level. I feel like before I came out to Colorado I was very passive…I’d been through a lot and didn’t have the confidence that I should’ve had,” said Corey. “Going through the Corps and being promoted, just knowing that I could be really good at what I do and be well-liked by my coworkers and peers I think was definitely a huge confidence-builder for me.”

To young people thinking about joining a corps, Corey says:

“I would recommend that if you are interested in corps at all you should definitely look into it as soon as possible. It’s more than just a job. I would just recommend using it for everything it’s worth. I know a lot of Corpsmembers do look at it as just a job and they don’t use all the other resources that a corps can offer. There’s a lot of networking that’s available and a lot of educational opportunities.”


How AmeriCorps helped Ladine Daniels find personal success

Sadly, Ladine "JR" Daniels passed away in his sleep in early November 2014. JR was a loved and respected member of the Corps community. He will be greatly missed. Click to read our tribute to JR.

Content below originally published in February 2013 

JR, formerly a Corpsmember with the Sustainability Institute, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2012 for his commitment to service and self improvement. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about JR and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2012 national conference.

Where does Ladine “JR” Daniels see himself in the future?

For starters, he plans to have his weatherization business, IMSEI (IM Southeastern Independence), off the ground within the next two years. He hopes his future is full of opportunities to learn new and better ways he can help people in his community save money and the environment. Unrelated to growing his business, his main goal is to become known in his community as someone who works to expand opportunities for youth.

“I want to become a mentor to kids who are heading down the path that I went down,” said JR. “I want to let them know that it’s not worth it.”

Earlier in his life, JR was convicted of a felony and served time in jail. He was content to accept his jail sentence so he could have a clear slate and start over again once he was released. However, after completing his sentence in 2009, JR realized that starting over again wasn’t so easy for a young man with a record.

With the help of his church in Charleston, South Carolina, JR connected with Pastor Larry Bratton, who at the time was in charge of a nonprofit called BDB (Breaking Down Barriers). BDB, which helps community members overcome barriers to employment or services, helped JR find his first stable job after his release. However, Larry Bratton left BDB to become the Social Justice Advocate for The Sustainability Institute; a Charleston-based nonprofit that offers weatherization services to local residents and trains young people to become home performance professionals. JR eventually joined The Sustainability Institute’s Energy Conservation Corps as an AmeriCorps member.

JR spent six months in the Energy Conservation Corps, gaining hands-on experience in home weatherization techniques. He was a standout Corpsmember from the beginning, offering guidance and friendship to younger Corpsmembers. His success led to a job offer from Carolina Green Energy Systems, an energy retrofit company in Charleston.  JR enjoyed his job with Carolina Green, but he was interested in starting his own weatherization business. He ended up leaving the company to avoid a conflict of interest.

As JR works with his partners to get IMSEI weatherization company up and running, he continues to work for the Sustainability Institute. He is currently a Crew Leader, but he will soon be hired as a fulltime Supervisor. On top of administrative duties, his main responsibility is to manage and organize crews. He trains Corpsmembers in weatherization techniques and helps run harassment training, OSHA safety training, and a financial literacy class.

On top of building his business and working at the Sustainability Institute, JR is also trying to reestablish Breaking Down Barriers, the organization that helped him find employment when he got out of jail.

"Our focus is not just youth, it’s for anyone who has any type of barrier. Like if you need help with painting your home but you’re not financially able to, that’s a barrier. If you’re a single mom and you need help finding a home, that’s a barrier. If you’re an ex-convict, that alone is a barrier,” said JR. “We want to provide training to whoever needs it, but we also to want to provide services. For instance, I might be hot off the street and I need a job. We’ll teach you how to paint. Then we have someone who needs their house painted but doesn’t have money to paint it. We can kill two birds with one stone.”

In addition to JR’s work schedule and his involvement with Breaking Down Barriers, he volunteers with the NAACP, ushers at his church, and helps out at a recreational park near the Sustainability Institute. He also serves with Philan Tree, a fellow 2012 Corpsmember of the Year, as a member of the National Council of Young Leaders. The Council, formed in July 2012 in response to a recommendation from the White House Council on Community Solutions, is comprised of low-income young adults from across the country.  JR helps represent the voice of young people who have been involved in the justice system.

“My whole thing with the justice system is that it’s pretty hard to find second chances, even when what you did was so long ago,” he said. “Why should something I did six years ago – knowing that I’m not the same man I used to be, knowing that a lot of things have changed over these years – why should that hold me back from finding a job that I’m totally qualified for?”

Through the National Council of Young Leaders, JR has met with such public figures as Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, and Ronnie Cho, the White House Liaison to Young Americans. JR is very grateful for his experience with the Sustainability Institute and AmeriCorps. Without these organizations he feels he would have never had so many opportunities and he would not be as successful as he is today.

“I’ve had all types of people calling who want to do an interview with me…from Charleston, from the Aspen Institute in New York, from people in DC – this is all because of AmeriCorps. I understand I had to put in hard work, but with the opportunities that AmeriCorps gave me it was easy for me to just fly with it,” said JR. “All of it has been a blessing to me. The way the Sustainability Institute gives me support and puts their trust in me, the way they fight for me is really amazing. Any type of help I need – like I needed an apartment. I was staying with my mom when I got out of jail in 2009 up until the fall of last year. They helped me find a place of my own. They meet all my needs. They’re not your average employers.”

It’s not just the people at The Sustainability Institute that JR appreciates; he is also grateful that his AmeriCorps experience exposed him to the weatherization business.

“I just love this work. The smile I put on a homeowners face when the electric bill comes and they’re saving a couple hundred dollars. Knowing that I had something to do with that is really powerful,” said JR. 

To young people thinking about joining a Corps, JR says:

“I think the thing I would need to tell them is to make sacrifices. Starting off, you won’t even make as much money as you’d make at McDonald’s, but the experience, the training, the career development that you get in AmeriCorps will pay off in the long run…I would tell someone trying to join that it’s one hundred percent worth it. I would show them the change it makes. I would take them to the neighborhoods that I used to hang out in and show them the people I used to hang around with and I’d even take them to jail and show them where they’re headed if they continue with the life they’re living now. Then I’d show how I’ve been able to improve. I’d show them all the awards, all the committees I’m on. With just a little time – not even two years – I’ve gotten my own place, I’ve been nominated to be on councils, I was a 2012 Corpsmember of the Year, I travel a lot and I don’t even have to pay a dime for it. I just think that AmeriCorps is a very good thing that made a huge difference in my life, and I think it could do the same thing for them, too."