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Economic Opportunity at Lowest Point in Decades, but Social and Educational Opportunities Soar

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First Posted: Jul 21, 2014 09:08 AM EDT
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The overall tally from the Opportunity Index, which addresses each report factor, indicates that over the last number of decades, the United States, as a whole, enjoys more opportunities. However, the economic component of the index is lower now than in any previous decade, forcing a decrease in overall opportunity from 2000 to 2010. (Photo : David McNew / Stringer)

Economic opportunity is not guaranteed in America. In fact, Americans across the board have less economic opportunity today than they did 40 years ago, despite a growth in social and educational opportunities.

Blame it on the painful recession or the eyebrow-raising economic trends that preceded it; ever since the economic downturn that struck in 2007 (also known as the Great Recession), America has been undergoing the worst financial conditions since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"Opportunity Since 1970: A Historical Report," a study compiled by Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, published a report on the evolution of America's community, economic and educational opportunities from 1970 to 2010. The report also took a gander at the progress of 10 factors in the nation, including violent crime, poverty, healthcare, wages, jobs, school graduation and economic inequality.

The overall tally from the Opportunity Index, which addresses each report factor, indicates that over the last number of decades, the United States, as a whole, enjoys more opportunities. However, the economic component of the index is lower now than in any previous decade, forcing a decrease in overall opportunity from 2000 to 2010.

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Wages have fallen and inequality has risen gradually across the country since 1970, and that inequality is evident when looking at the "structural changes in the American economy" over the last four decades, displaying the erosion of economic opportunity.

At the same time, the report indicates an overall improvement in educational opportunities: scores from preschool enrollment have nearly quadrupled since 1970, and twice as many adults are earning associate's degrees or higher. Violent crimes have taken a dip since 1980, but remain worse than in 1970. Health and medical care access has improved dramatically, and has earned an additional boost in accessibility due to Obamacare. Economics aside, the average American has benefitted from safer, healthier and more connected neighborhoods, according to the report. There's also been an improvement to the proportion of youth not in school and not working, the rate of violent crime and access to medical doctors.

However, understanding that social and educational opportunities have improved may run counter to the reality of many, particularly those living in low-income communities. Education gaps continue to widen, and Latinos are still attempting to catch up to non-Latino whites; social alienation based on race, gender and sexuality continues to thrive at home, school and the workplace; and more people may have access to healthcare, but many are struggling to afford monthly payments.

The report calculated information from numerous sources and reports, compiling decade's worth of research to examine the changing landscape of opportunity in this country, presumably taking into account individuals of experience.

Economic slowdown from the earlier 2000s played a large role in today's lack of economic opportunity, but there are a number of other factors, including policy decisions made over preceding decades; racial or ethnic heritage; marital status; and inherited wealth or characteristics from one's parents. Establishing economic and occupational opportunities for Americans, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, can position communities to succeed, and will create a cycle of achievement.

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