The Opportunity Index: Using Data to Tackle Community Problems

Jun 14, 2012

Today’s guest post is written by Elizabeth Clay Roy, deputy director, at Opportunity Nation and National Conference on Volunteering and Service speaker.

How do we know if we are creating opportunity in America? A stock market rally? Reduction in the unemployment rate? Those tell us something important about today, but little about the quality of jobs or sustainability of business gains. We feel good if high school or college graduation rates go up, but what does that tell us about the economy these graduates enter? And how do we factor in safety and the ability to solve problems with our neighbors?

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a way of looking at opportunity in a community?

In partnership with Measure of America, Opportunity Nation developed the Opportunity Index in 2011 to do just that. The Opportunity Index is a comprehensive approach to measuring access to opportunity in America by including non-economic as well as economic indicators. These indicators tell us about where we stand today, and our ability to prepare for success tomorrow.  The result is a tool that helps people identify concrete solutions to complex problems.

When a young person grows up in a community with less access to doctors, early education or decent schools, the ladder of mobility is missing important rungs. Or if you have been laid off, trying to find a job in a community with double-digit unemployment, few banks to help you start your own business and limited internet access, the chances for economic security are fewer. The Index measures all of those, and is a tool that our 250+ coalition members (including Points of Light) and 100 grassroots leaders have been using to better understand and strengthen their communities.

There are stark differences between states and communities in America. For example, in Nevada only half of freshmen graduate in four years, opposed to 90 percent in Wisconsin and Vermont.

Most people associate opportunity with jobs and wages, but neither the unemployment rate nor median household income are among the indicators that correlate most strongly with the overall Index. The indicator with the strongest correlation with the final Opportunity Score is the percentage of teenagers not in school and not working. Those with a high percentage of disengaged youth had lower scores. This has helped our campaign decide to focus on making sure that young adults can get a foothold into the labor market or post-secondary education.

I am excited about coming to the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Chicago next week to participate in the Economic Opportunity Track with The Opportunity Index: Using Data to Tackle Community Problems and talking about how we translate the Index into action that volunteers around the country can take. When we know what the goal is, and how volunteers can contribute to reaching it, engagement can be even deeper.

To check out our findings, and see how your community fares, visit and join me next week at Session #3095 on Tuesday from 2:30 – 4 p.m.

Elizabeth volunteers with iMentor and the International Commission for Dalit Rights. Elizabeth is also the co-author of Shaping Vibrant Cities, a guidebook on effective community planning and political engagement for neighborhood organizations. She will present at The Opportunity Index: Using Data to Tackle Community Problems in Chicago.