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Want to get ahead?

Live in the right ZIP code

Pop quiz: Unemployment in the U.S. is down to 5.1 percent, GDP between April and June surged 3.9
percent, and wage growth is running just ahead of inflation. Are most Americans getting ahead?
If your answer was something along the lines of, "uh, how would I know?" then join the club.
Because while the torrent of economic data hoovered up in the public and private sectors is
undeniably useful, it often obscures more than it reveals about what daily life is really like in the

Even more challenging is gauging whether people retain that all-important, and all-American,
foundational cultural belief that hard work and grit are the main ingredients for success.
Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit group focused on improving economic mobility in the U.S.,
concludes in a new report that the ongoing recovery, along with smart public policy, are chipping
away at some of the obstacles to advancement, such as joblessness and access to health care and
education -- if you're lucky enough to live in the right ZIP code.
"The circumstances of one's birth matter a lot," said Russell Krumnow, managing director of
Opportunity Nation, a coalition of business, educational, philanthropic and other organizations.
Social scientists and some economists have long known that when it comes to moving up the ladder,
geography is key. Not surprisingly, perhaps, growing up in a more affluent neighborhood affords a
host of advantages, from better education and social connections to a reduced incidence of crime
and access to healthier food.
And on that score, Opportunity Nation's latest index, which weighs economic, educational and other
factors that affect upward mobility, shows that millions of poorer Americans are falling further
behind as rising income inequality deepens the gulf between rich and poor.
"When you look at the individual county level around the U.S., you can see how some people are
growing up in places with many challenges, and others are growing up in areas where the numbers
are moving in the right direction," Krumnow said. "As a country, that doesn't show the equality of
opportunity we'd like to see."
Such opportunity isn't only a matter of economic fairness, he emphasizes -- it's also a matter
economic efficiency, underlying the importance of having an educated workforce for employers and
for the country as a whole.
Not that the U.S. isn't making at least some progress, according to Opportunity Nation. Jobs, the

sturdiest harness against a downward socioeconomic slide, are more plentiful. High school
graduation rates are trending up in many parts of the country. Violent crime is generally down, and
Internet access is more widespread.
On the group's fifth annual index -- which tries to pinpoint both economic and noneconomic factors
that affect mobility, such as the availability of good schools, decent jobs and high-quality health care
-- every state in the nation has improved in opening the doors to opportunity.
At the same time, however, inequality has widened in 47 states. That puts particular pressure on
what Krumnow calls "disconnected" youth, referring to the 5.5 million 16- t0 24-year-olds who are
neither in school nor employed. As of this year, nearly 14 percent of young adults were in that
category, up from just under 13 percent in 2007.
Two major -- and interrelated -- reasons the recovery isn't doing more to lift the fortunes of many
teens and young adults: poverty and inequality. U.S. Census data released last month showed that
the share of Americans living below the poverty line held steady in 2014 at 14.8 percent, surprising
many experts who expected to see that number tick down given the healthier economy.

A recent Urban Institute study also found that

two out of five children spend a year in poverty
before they turn 18.
Meanwhile, inequality of wealth and income in
the U.S. remain at its highest levels since
before the Great Depression, economists
including Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez
have found in noting the corrosive effects that
trend has on American society.
"As we've recovered over the last five years,
the economic gains have more unevenly
accrued to top income-earners," Krumnow said.
There's no shortage of proposals for leveling the economic playing field for all Americans. Those
include policies aimed at alleviating poverty, a federal mandate for universal pre-K education, using
the tax code to redistribute income and encouraging public-private partnerships to provide worker
Opportunity Nation, whose backers range from Wall Street banks to major charitable groups, says it
favors bipartisan approaches to empowering Americans. In reality, though, for now many such
proposals remain politically divisive, or even dead on arrival, leaving little room for big solutions to
even bigger problems.
Yet Krumnow, while acknowledging the partisan political climate, is upbeat, saying Democrats and
Republicans have a shared interest in lifting up Americans, especially young people. "I remain
optimistic that on some issues there's a chance for agreement."
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