Gaps in Youth Opportunity by State

Public discourse on economics in the United States, and around the world, often focuses on rising income and wealth inequality. The “Occupy” movement drew great attention to the rising fortunes of the top one percent while middle- and lower-income Americans lost ground. Vast scholarly, political, and media attention is focused on issues of growing inequality and implications for broader societal cultural shifts as well as economic growth. Less attention has been paid to the changing landscape of opportunities enabling youth to get ahead, to improve their living situation over that of their parents through hard work and determination. Such social mobility has remained fairly stable for generations, but recent evidence across a range of indicia suggests growing gaps in the opportunities available to children in lower socioeconomic status families versus those in families of higher socioeconomic strata. This pushes the American Dream—or the idea that anyone who works hard, and plays by the rules, can get ahead—further out of reach. Such inequality is a potential threat to our social structure as well as our economic well-being.

In his new book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam argues that there are growing social class disparities in the opportunities available to children across the nation using a series of narrative examples and data documenting gaps for the country. Circumstances, however, vary across the country and with them the most appropriate localized policy responses. At the Carsey School, we examine the data further by offering a set of graphs that address the extent to which such opportunity gaps exist in each state and, in selected examples, whether they have increased over the past fifty or so years. We look across several domains including income inequality and poverty, family structure, and educational access and achievement.

This project, Gaps in Youth Opportunity by State, offers a series of fifty-two downloadable slide shows—one slide show for each state and Washington, D.C., and one for the nation as a whole. We compare indicia of opportunity between those with high and low socioeconomic status. Worth noting is that we use parental or family income, or parental education, as measures of socioeconomic status. Of course, a whole host of demographic variables interact to stratify youth opportunities. Documenting the impact of such critical characteristics as race/ethnicity, nativity, citizenship, age, gender, and place type is beyond the scope of the current analyses.

For each state chart, we show the national data in the background for comparison so that viewers can see how their state compares to the country’s average. This project is one that we anticipate will be augmented and enhanced over time, but to begin, we show nine graphs examining differences in youth opportunity. In each graph, we use the most recent data available and, when possible, track trends back to the 1960s.

Note that there are many other efforts to chronicle opportunity variation across the states, although to our knowledge, none focus explicitly on gaps within states by socioeconomic status. Both the Opportunity Nation’s Opportunity Index and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT data center provide excellent interactive sites with detailed information for each state across several domains including income and poverty, employment and labor markets, health, and education. The Assets & Opportunity Scorecard, as well as Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity’s Spotlight on the States project, also have information on state economic and family indicators with an emphasis on policy and program implementation. 

Click the Region to See Opportunity Gaps in Each State

Additional Information 

Beth Mattingly, Director of Research on Vulnerable Families Research Program
Beth Mattingly is director of Research on Vulnerable Families at the Carsey School of Public Policy. She manages all of Carsey’s policy relevant work relating to family well-being. Topics covered by the vulnerable families research team range from refundable tax credits, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other federal programs, as well as policies that help families balance the domains of work and family like access to affordable child care and paid sick leave. Read More...

Andrew Schaefer, Vulnerable Families Research Program Scientist
Andrew joined Carsey in May 2010 as a research assistant on the Vulnerable Families research team. Much of his work at Carsey focuses on poverty, the social safety net, and women and work, including policies and programs that support low-income and other working families. Read More...

Douglas Gagnon, Carsey Fellow
Douglas Gagnon, PhD is a recent graduate from the Department of Education at the University of New Hampshire and a former research assistant at the Carsey School of Public Policy. 

Sarah Leonard, Research Intern
Sarah is a graduate student in the Human Development and Families Studies Department studying adolescent development and a research intern with the Vulnerable Families Research Program at the Carsey School. Her thesis explores how dimensions of well-being, such as self-esteem and resilience, are impacted through participation in recreational fishing. Sarah is broadly interested in the inequalities today’s youth face when it comes to engaging themselves in their communities and schools, particularly in the form of extracurricular participation.