Opportunity nation?

November 9, 2011

America’s biggest race is just beginning. It’s the race to create equal opportunity in our nation once again and to restore the belief that the American Dream can still be achieved.

Disillusionment, despair and unemployment hold court these days in a country that was once thought of as a place where dreams could be turned into reality. But the reality right now, despite unemployment numbers dropping by a statistically insignificant .1% on Friday from 9.1% to 9%, is that job and life opportunities are dismal, even non-existent for many, in what once was thought of as the land of endless opportunity.

So what does opportunity look like these days in a country that’s barely recognizable anymore?

For Luis Ubinas, who came to New York as a child with his parents and lived in alphabet city on the Lower East Side, it is “the unshakable belief that the next day will be better.” Ubinas, who has gone on to become the president of the Ford Foundation, says that “opportunity is synonymous with what brought my family to this country.” In other words, hope. Hope of a better, richer, fuller life.

Watch live streaming video from opportunitynation at livestream.com

But hope has flown out the window for many in America. Which is why Opportunity Nation, an organization dedicated to creating more opportunity, jobs and social mobility in America, put on their first summit in New York last Friday at Columbia University. Under their parent organization, Be the Change, Opportunity Nation is developing a diverse, star-powered coalition from across all sectors that works in unison to help solve what’s ailing this great nation of ours. “Bi-partisanship is our sweet spot,” says Mark Edwards, the executive director of Opportunity Nation.

This comes just in time as Obama recently declared at a private fundraiser in Washington, D.C., that the biggest task for him is to fix the horribly extreme stifling, stagnate, and suffocating bipartisanship in U.S. politics.

It used to be that if you worked hard and played by the rules, anyone could get ahead. But the rules have become so twisted that now only a few benefit and prosper from them. The majority gets left behind. We no longer live in a fair — or democratic — system. As the president of Catholic Charities Reverend Larry Snyder said, “We live in a world of broken promises.” So it’s easy to understand why people feel so hopeless.

“In the 60s and 70s, when I was growing up in India, everyone looked to the States for the answer,” said journalist Fareed Zakaria. “It embodied optimism, energy and dynamism. Today, it’s pessimism and despair.”

“Everyone likes to say ‘this time is different’,” Zakaria noted, “but this time it is different. The challenges the U.S. faces is different from 10, 20, 50 years ago. [Today], it’s a unique constellation of forces that are working for the worst.”

But just because we may be entering the worst of times, doesn’t mean we need to panic.

“Don’t be scared, fearful or anxious; just recognize it’s different this time,” Zakaria said. “We don’t have to run scared, but we do have to run fast.”

Time is certainly of the essence. And, in fact, the worst of times can coincide with the best of times, as Charles Dickens so aptly noted. Although there’s much more to fix this time around than just two cities.

For Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg this is the time to fight against poverty, increase our appetite for innovation and fix the country’s immigration system. If we don’t do this, we won’t be starting the next Google, he says.

“It’s time to show this is still the land of opportunity,” Bloomberg said. “It’s time to show we aren’t giving up on any American. Don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t the right time. This is the right time.”

To see what sort of opportunity exits in your very own neighborhood, Opportunity Nation teamed up with the Human Development Project to build an Opportunity Index for all 50 states and 2,400 counties in America. All you have to do is type in your zip code and you’ll see how your area compares with others. Opportunity in the index was measured in three main ways — the robustness of the local economy, access to a high quality education, and community life and civic help, meaning access to physicians, safety and crime numbers, volunteer opportunities, supermarket choices, Internet connections and social bonds, trust and networks in the neighborhood.

Nevada was ranked the worst state — it scored a 21.3 out of 100 — because of the low level of children in school, the bad access to doctors and food, and the small amount of community participation. Connecticut received the highest overall score of 89 points.

“We look beyond what a person can do,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, the co-director of the American Human Development Project and lead researcher for the Opportunity Index. “Instead, we ask, ‘what are the institutions and conditions that can help people?’”

Ubinas, who spoke at the summit, thinks institutions such as small businesses and public education can help mend and advance this country forward. Hope still exists for him, particularly in the condition and financial savings of the individual. “The only way this country works is the spirit of the individual driving growth,” Ubinas told me. “The solution to this crises sits in this notion of opportunity to create and innovate.” And, how exactly is that done, I asked him? Through a shot at education, access to credit and simple acts of encouragement, Ubinas said.

“The idea that the American spirit of entrepreneurship isn’t thriving is wrong,” Ubinas said. “Nearly 550,000 small business were created in 2010. If 1 out of 10 succeed, that’s half a million jobs.”

Marquis Cabrera, an Opportunity Scholar, can be counted as one of those entrepreneurs. He has never given up. Although he was sent to work as a teenager by his drug-addicted mother, brought home his earnings to her and was always told that she would buy groceries with them, she never did. The one day he did buy groceries with his hard earned money because he was so hungry, his mother flew into a rage and went after him with a butcher knife. Cabrera eventually found his way to a nurturing foster home. Today, he has started a non-profit that helps children in foster care.

“We have 14 million unemployed right now,” former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao told me. “We need a quantum jump in jobs. But there’s still a jobs gap — we don’t have workers with the right skills. We need higher skilled workers, which means more education and better job training that is relevant to today’s work and that incorporates employers into the system as well.”

Jobs, job training and education is what Chao thinks will preserve the country she, her mother and two sisters immigrated to from Taiwan when she was 8 years old.

Access to education and credit are certainly important ingredients to helping America move forward, but the missing components for those two items are quality and fairness. A solid public education in this country is, at best, shaky, and equal access to decent credit is an even more slippery slope.

All of the issues raised at the summit are enormous societal issues that need to be attacked from all sides and sectors — education, economy, private, public, left, right. It will require the various groups to acknowledge that we have incredibly serious matters that will quickly become grave ones if we don’t band together to address pressing common needs — and rights.

Personal finance guru to some, Suze Orman, who also spoke at the summit, said, “We cannot ask our nation to pick us up; it takes one person to do that.” But that is exactly the opposite of what the summit was asking us to do. It is clear that we are a nation of Humpty Dumptys. We need to pick ourselves up, but in doing so we also need to help each other put ourselves back together again.

So how is Opportunity Nation going to help us do that? They are in the midst of creating a plan with their bipartisan partners, writing new policy, and, come spring, will go to our presidential candidates to say, “here’s our plan for opportunity. What’s yours?”

The most practical solution I heard all day was when I was in line for the ladies room and one woman said, “Someone should figure out a way to design a woman’s bathroom so that there aren’t always lines for it. Now, that’s an opportunity.”


I think you should also consider the part that unreaistic job expectations are playing in the response of well educated privileged young people to their inability to find employment. If you go back 10 or 20 years, it was common for young people to seek summer work experiences in almost all economic groups beginning at the age of 16 (when it was legal to work in most geographical areas). It was routine to find such jobs in summer camps, chain fast food restaurants (like McDonald’s) resort areas and retail businesses. That kind of employment, which was somewhat tedious and low paying not only taught us that work sometimes meant showing up on time and doing something that we might not like very much under the direction of a superior- all lessons that need to be learned in the transition from adolescent to someone who was serious and ready to work. Beginning about 15 years ago, high school and young college students began abandoning this kind of work in favor of “educational and societal enrichment programs” and unpaid “internships”. Trips to thrid world countries to do “development” work replaced actual work experiences and companies like McDonalds (which at one time was one of the major “first job” entry points for young people) stopped hireing anyone without a high school diploma making these jobs unavailable to anyone still in school and on summer break). Couple this with the experience of inexperienced business school graduates snareing $200,000 annual salaried jobs in the financial community and you end up with what we have now: a population of well educated people who are totally unprepared for the reality of the job market and whose expectations, even in good economic times, is wildly out of line with the kind of jobs and remuneration that is the average for most. The other factor that needs to be considered is that college loans and the roll our university system plays in those loans is seriously flawed. Rhode Island School of Design in Providence is a good (bur surely not an isolated) example. Although jobs in Graphic Design have been decimated by both the economy and the computerization of that industry, RISD continues to churn out a growing number of graduates in that field every spring. Because of the low level of aid available in that institution many of these young people are graduating with loan totals of more than $50 to $90,000 with no reasonable expectation they will every be able to use the expensive skills they have gained in an exployed position that will allow them to both live a satisfaxtory life and repay their loans. This is going on throughout colleges and universities in this country and even in a great economy, would create serious employment problems. Lastly, I cannot emphasize enough the roll that the kind of “woe is me” pervasive attitude to our current problems is playing in our current crisis. It is a part of our American character that we can always find a way to solve the problems we face. I am personally confident that the work I have put into starting and growing a small business will eventually pay off for me in real terms. But the constant regurgetation of negative financial news and difficulties around the world seems to be creating a climate where the self confidence needed to confront a problem and then surmount it is severely lacking today. Possibly because our young people have not had to work and their expectations are so inflated and partly because our soon to be retired baby boom generation is threatened by an economic inability to retire and a concurrent inability to find the continued employment they need in order to continue to support themselves in their declining years we are becoming a nation of people who spend most of their waking hours complaining about how bad things are instead of trying to find workable solutions to the changing landscape we all face.

Posted by robinbugbee | Report as abusive

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Posted by Opportunity nation? | Katharine Herrup | Report as abusive

Is’nt this the main problem?

The result of unbridled, relentless, financial-economic ultra liberalism:

“Was not it just unwillingness from the side of the GOP that stopped Obama from creating at least some jobs that could not be exported and would leave a stronger backbone to the American Society?
Then…laissez faire prohibits import duties, so if you would try to balance out too cheap imports…the only way to recreate heavy industry…you would find the “trade liberals” against you.
I am afraid that if the West will not introduce limitations to the supply side economy we will never survive this game. We only think markets(money), not people (work)”

Are we going to find an answer for that, the Chinese also have a good education system, they also take their opportunities, they are however taking wages that would just pay our rent…..in a controlled economy, so it would take very long to come alongside us.

Posted by Checksbalances | Report as abusive

Checksbalances: You need to take an economics lesson… many of them…. I teach Economics. Would you like to sign up for a class ? ?

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Excellent article

Posted by KarenParloc | Report as abusive

Opportunity? What opportunity?

Hurricane Irene has destroyed our onion crop and wiped out our family farm. The federal crop insurance program is worthless and no disaster aid is getting passed by this Congress for farmers in the northeast.

My wife and I have been un-paid advocates for our valley for about 15 years (here is the link for my testimony before the U.S. Senate last year about the worthless crop insurance program http://bit.ly/stP73C) and we can’t believe it has come to this. I was on the Hill in September and nothing has changed recently. They are no closer to passing any sort of crop loss program now than they were then. Farmers were not only wiped out by Irene and Lee in my area, but were also wiped out across the northeast and the best they can do is maybe pass measly programs that will cover conservation practices that have nothing to do with crop losses. The public will be told farmers will be helped and that’s quite simply crap. Our government is dysfunctional and unwilling to provide the real help we need but we don’t think it represents how society feels. When the local ABC and News Radio WCBS piece and local pieces ran about my eBay ad there was a strong outpouring of concern expressed to me for farmers getting real help. A farmer shouldn’t have to do this, my eBay ad, in the hopes to save his farm.

Dozens of farmers are teetering on the edge of going out of business. And all of the businesses that depend on them, the seed dealers, the pesticide dealers, the tractor dealers, the supply companies, the repair persons, the fuel companies, etc … all down the line, in these rural communities, are all now teetering as well, as we farmers are on the brink.

Again I ask, what opportunity?

Posted by ChrisPawelski | Report as abusive

America will soon have 80 million baby boomers that plan to work longer than their parents with a pension did, automation/computers and internet business has displaced jobs as fast as we can buy them and government (Fed, state & local) is now almost 40% of US GDP-greater than all manufacuring & construction jobs combined with monster gov debt too! Also, poor morals & ethics (secularization of church and state-call it progressive) are behind most of our problems! We do have close to equal opportunity now (fact) but we have fewer opportunities for these reasons! Deflation for a generation is my guess-ala Japanese style or worse!Hope we come out the other end a better country! Prepare or suffer, you’ve been warned!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

Solutions: Make many non essential government jobs into two-increases productivity and at least helps retain jobs! Speed up the patent process (it’s on the table I think)! Increase taxes dramatically on alcohol, gambling and porn- the industries that could never pay enough for the harm they do! Make criminals pay for their court costs, jail time and police time-at least a larger portion! Limit lawsuits big time, medical in particular! Also, those that aren’t passing in High school-send them home-their parent s will kick their butts back to reality-about a 50% grad rate now FYI! Teachers get paid much less than the current $75k/yr avg and yes, we’ll need to raise taxes for years on everything under the sun for everyone, the rich in particular-was there every any doubt about this? Finally, we particpate less in any wars that small brained teerorist start and if they do, we get out the big stick in a hurry with all the super powers on board or we stop trade with them overnight!

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