It’s hard to measure what causes poverty. But a new report from The Heritage Foundation adds a valuable new tool to the discussion.
The 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity measures 31 different indicators that contribute either to culture, poverty and dependence, or general opportunity in America. The indicators, broken into these three categories, measure trends over the past year, five years, and ten years in an effort to better understand the direction of our country.
“Knowing the direction of social and economic trends — as well as their interrelationships — can serve as a valuable starting point as we consider how to enhance the prospects of the rising generation and ensure our nation’s future,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint, the president of The Heritage Foundation, in his preface to the Index.
The Index carries mixed news. Looking at the cultural indicators, four indicators are moving in the right direction while six are moving in the wrong direction. For example, the marriage rate has continued to plunge. More than one in four children now live in single-parent households. Teenagers are also increasingly using drugs.
But all is not lost. The violent crime rate has been falling for years, and many legislators are currently considering important criminal justice reforms.
The indicators of poverty and dependence, however, are much more dire. Out of eight statistics measured by the Index, seven are moving in the wrong direction. Despite increased welfare spending over the last 10 years, the poverty rate has grown, more people are on food stamps, and fewer people are working. These indicators show that many changes need to be made in order to get America back to a culture of opportunity.
“Throughout the past 10 years, in spite of massive and growing funding invested in America’s antipoverty agenda, the percentage of individuals able to support themselves free of government welfare has declined,” said Bob Woodson, President and CEO of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, in his commentary on the Index. “The fundamental reason for the failure to effectively reduce dependency and promote self-sufficiency is a misdiagnosis of poverty in America.”
Woodson argues that opportunity comes when we believe in the power of transformation by neighborhood leaders, referencing stories from the Comeback video series at Opportunity Lives. “I have known men released from prison — with the mark of a felon and no job prospects — become successful businessmen and entrepreneurs who provide employment to others in the community,” said Woodson in his commentary on the Index.
Perhaps the most encouraging news from the Index relates to education. Private school choice participation has nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years, and charter school enrollment has more than tripled. These alternative schooling options give low-income children a chance to escape the broken systems around them. Even the high school graduation rate has been increasing.
After high school however, the outlook is more worrying. The average student loan debt of college graduates is nearing $28,000, with 93 percent of loans given by the government. Graduates face a tough job market, with taxes consuming a higher percentage of GDP than five years ago and an employment-population ratio still struggling to recover from the recession.
The government is making it even harder for businesses to grow. Major federal regulations continue to rise. “For the American small-business owner, the opportunity costs of federal regulation are all too often crowding out investment and hiring,” said Karen Harned, the Executive Director of the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center, in the Index. Economic freedom in general has also been falling for the past ten years.
The Index of Culture and Opportunity shows some good news, but even more, it shows us what we need to change in order to help opportunity flourish in America again. It will be a vital resource in continuing the conversation.