What Is The Opportunity Gap?

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Do all children in the United States have the opportunity to live the American Dream? Most of us believe that through hard work and perseverance, everyone should be able get ahead and make a good life for themselves and their family. But an abundance of research shows that it has become increasingly difficult for kids born into lower income families to get ahead. 
Kids born to parents with a college degree have a vastly different experience than kids born to parents lacking a college education. Educated parents are more likely to get married and stay married, spend more time reading and talking with their young children, spend more money on extracurricular activities, and help their kids plan for the future. Less educated parents are more likely to be single parents, have lower incomes, spend less time reading and engaging their children, and have fewer dinners with their kids. 
The differences in children’s circumstances shows up in important ways. When compared with kids who have college-educated parents, poorer kids underperform in school, are less likely to participate—in church, sports, or other extracurricular activities—are more isolated, and lack solid connections with a caring adult. Not surprisingly, they are entering and completing college at dramatically lower rates when compared with their peers with educated parents.

All of our kids today do not have an equal chance at the American Dream. This is the opportunity gap, and this is the crisis affecting thousands of New Hampshire kids and millions of kids across the country.

Why does the opportunity gap matter?

Most of us grew up with the belief that if we work hard and play by the rules, there are no limits to what we can achieve. The belief that all kids, regardless of family background, should have an equal chance to work hard and succeed. That’s the basic bargain of the American Dream—anyone, regardless of their circumstances, has the ability to achieve their dreams if they’re willing to work for them.

Sadly, however, this important tenet of our nation’s culture has been slipping away for too many children. Extensive research shows the social and economic mobility enjoyed by previous generations is no longer available to many families and young adults, across the country and in New Hampshire. 

To put the problem in perspective:

  • As many as half of all Americans have seen wages, wealth, and earning power stagnate over the past twenty years.
  • Only a small fraction of Americans has been able to become wealthier.

The ideal of our country as the land of opportunity for all is disappearing. A real conversation is needed to address this crisis and to restore the American Dream for future generations.

What’s driving the opportunity gap? 

To understand the opportunity gap—and, ultimately, to work toward closing it—it’s important to understand the factors that are driving it. Different factors at all stages of life directly affect a person’s access to opportunity. In the image below, we have organized a person’s life into five stages, beginning with birth and ending with adulthood. During each stage of life, research has shown that there are a wide number of factors influencing a person’s opportunity.  

Put another way, these factors that are present in various stages of life create a domino effect of opportunity. For example, a child born into poverty is less likely to have access to quality child care and pre-K education, which affects their performance in school, reduces their likelihood of graduating from high school, and limits the availability of employment opportunities available to them once they reach adulthood. 

Why is the opportunity gap growing? 

Over the past several decades, a number of factors have resulted in a growing opportunity gap for New Hampshire kids. Consider the following:

  • The percentage of kids living in single-parent families where the parent has a high school education or less has grown by more than 500% since 1960. Meanwhile, the percentage of kids living in single-parent households where the parent has a college degree or higher is stagnant.  

  • Child poverty in New Hampshire is on the rise. Since 1999, the overall child poverty level in the state has risen from 6.5% to 8.7%—and it's continuing to rise. Furthermore, the divide between the wealthiest families and the least wealthy families is at its widest point in our country's history.  

  • Parents with a college degree or higher are more likely to spend time on activities related to child development, like reading to their children in the evening, than parents with a high school degree or less. (Source for the chart below: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam)

  • The amount of money parents with higher incomes are spending on their children's developement is increasing rapidly on expenses like child care, education, school supplies, and enrichment activities (music lessons and sports, for example). Spending by lower-income parents has been stagnant for decades. (Source for the chart below: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam)

  • Family income now matters more than ability for completing college. In other words, college students from higher income families are graduating from college at increasingly higher rates than do students from lower income families. College graduation has a tremendous impact on the future job and wage potential of young adults. (Source for the chart below: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, by Robert Putnam)

What can we do about it? 

Our Kids New Hampshire was created to work with our neighbors, fellow citizens, and community and political leaders to find and implement solutions that improve opportunity for Granite State kids. And we need your help! Will you join us?


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RT @LaureninNH: So many little ways to help close the #opportunitygap. This one looks fun!! @ourkidsnh https://t.co/4plOQuCFsV

3 years ago

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