The Cold, Hard Fact About the Geography of the American Dream


study developed by Measure of America and Opportunity Nation was released on Monday in the format of an interactive database that evaluates and measures access to basic economic, academic, and social resources in communities across the country. What is perhaps most striking is the study's finding that six million young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither working nor in school.

They are the idle youth, trapped in an environment of entrenched instability, isolation, and poor economic mobility — conditions brought on purely by their geographic location and having little to do with their inherent skills.

The study looked at a variety of situational elements of success, locally measuring and comparing access to jobs and health care, crime rates, housing, and internet access, as well as pre-school enrollment and on-time graduation statistics, among others. The importance of these factors to a young person’s ability to become socially productive is clear. Anything that distracts from continuing an education or pursuing a promising career wastes the innovation and promise of this generation.

The Opportunity Nation coalition states the problem clearly: “We can’t pick our ethnicity, the family we are born into, or our IQ. But if you work hard and play by the rules, your zip code shouldn’t determine the amount of opportunity available to you.”

Want a shot at the American dream? You have a greater chance of achieving it in Vermont than Nevada, a finding that confounds the notion that every American has an equal opportunity to escape poverty and improve our lives.

If we are supposed to be a bootstrap nation, and if millennials are supposed to be the bootstrap generation, there is a gaping chasm between our rhetoric and our reality.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs starts with food, water, and sleep, and move up through security, to love, to self-esteem. It is only after these needs are met that a person is driven to aspire to creativity, innovation, and problem-solving — the very traits required to succeed in a highly competitive economic environment. There has been a great deal written about our generation from the perspective of how we behave once we get to the top levels, but 15% of 16 to 24-year-olds are lacking the essential building blocks of food, housing, security, and knowledge to even begin to reach that stage.

Consider how basic these needs are (the list considered by the Opportunity Index is here) and consider how they apply to potential achievement. Without access to reliable banking institutions, newly-minted workers cannot learn to manage finances, increase their savings, or build credit. If they are in a community where a minimum wage job is still not a livable wage, or are spending more than 30% of their incomes on housing, can they afford to invest in much else? These needs are so universally understood that a homeless teen who managed to graduate as valedictorian was featured on CNN.

These challenges are part of a dynamic condition that the idle youth face, leaving them vulnerable and worse, abandoned. As others have pointed out, our nation’s largest cities — Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta — all have more than 100,000 idle young people. The lives of these youth are likely complicated by multiple factors impeding their success, each one exacerbating the absence of another.

This is not the same issue as our troubled youth, though the two populations likely have some overlap. And the systemic lack of support for basic needs of our younger generation is poised to cause broader problems. Young people are more vulnerable to negative influences of suicide, addiction, and crime. The period between 16 and the early-20s is a critical window of opportunity in development. In other countries, these discontented youths have led riots to protest long-term unemployment and dwindling career prospects. Some people believe this to be a reaction to the scaling back of entitlement programs, but even developing countries with no safety net face similar unrest and disruption from unoccupied young people.

The solutions to addressing idleness are not easy. The underlying challenges we face with reducing poverty, unemployment, and income inequality affect all demographics, but not equally. There is time to change the narrative for these youngest members of the millennial generation. With limited resources, we must channel our efforts to improve upward mobility and do so efficiently and effectively.

I studied international development at Tulane University. In the development field, technology is often pointed to as a transformative tool that expands access to information, acts as a substitute for physical mobility, and allows people to leapfrog to higher stages of competitiveness. Unlike the developing world, the United States has the basic infrastructure to allow populations to benefit from the internet; reliable electrical grids, public infrastructure such as roads and libraries, and community organizations dedicated to addressing unmet needs.

Access to information accelerates local learning and can help establish connections to supportive resources. Focusing limited public or private funds on expanding one of the quickest delivery systems that also promotes self-reliance and innovation is arguably the way to transcend obstacles in these communities. Building a local capacity for internet access has benefits for entire populations, and concentrating on utilizing such services in areas with the most need is smart policy. Public libraries are being used to create resumes, utilize employment services, access online job resources, and apply for jobs, and are uniquely positioned to provide these services to the under and unemployed. The best part is that they already exist and can be rejuvenated and rededicated.

My background in policy drives me to want to find a solution. My experience in Washington, DC gives me perspective on how challenging that is. But the current situation facing six million young people is far too grave to allow for complacency from our political and community leaders. In a political environment where very little is being done to address the real issues of our country, it is imperative we make a concerted effort to improve the lives of our generation. The Opportunity Index provided us with exactly what we needed: the opportunity.