Measuring the State of Opportunity in America

Inside the latest research on opportunity from Gallup and the Center for Advancing Opportunity, supported by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Koch

August 18, 2020

min read

From the pandemic to demonstrations and civil unrest, 2020 has opened eyes across the country to widening gaps to opportunity and public safety across groups in society. 

To better understand these issues through public opinion in fragile communities – those characterized by high proportions of residents struggling daily with limited opportunities for social mobility –  global analytics firm Gallup has for the last three years collaborated with the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO), a partnership between the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the Charles Koch Foundation, and Koch Industries – part of the company’s decades-long mission to advance programs and policies aimed at disrupting a two-tiered society that fails America’s most vulnerable and holds people back from achieving their potential.

What is a fragile community?

Compared with U.S. adults overall, fragile community residents are almost twice as likely to have household incomes under $35,000, less than one-third as likely to have household incomes of $90,000 or more. Just in 1 in 10 have a bachelor’s degree compared with 1 in 3 U.S. adults overall. White people make up 63% of the U.S. population but account for just 38% of residents in fragile communities, which have a higher proportion of Black (31%) and Hispanic (23%) residents than in the general population.

From criminal justice to education to jobs and more, CAO’s third annual State of Opportunity report surveyed 6,941 fragile community residents, including those from the Appalachian region and the 11 largest combined statistical areas in the United States, which Gallup defines as “urban areas that reflect broad social and economic interactions,” such as the region shared by Boston; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Providence, Rhode Island.

“The lives of residents of America's fragile communities are critical to understand at this time, but they are not understood well enough,” said Camille Lloyd, director of Gallup’s Center on Black Voices, in a news release announcing the report. “The third year of our research on fragile communities with the Center for Advancing Opportunity reveals new opportunities as well as persistent ones that demand attention from leaders.”
From criminal justice and educational opportunity to economic mobility and entrepreneurship, here are 6 things you should know about the state of opportunity from this year’s report:

1.    Lack of trust in law enforcement varies

In 2019, 60% of Black fragile community residents said they knew “some” or “a lot” of people who were treated unfairly by the police. That’s significantly more than 31% of White residents and 39% of Hispanic residents in fragile communities who said the same. 

About half of Black fragile community residents (49%) said they knew “some” or “a lot” of people who were unfairly sent to jail, while just 19% of White residents and 23% of Hispanic residents said the same.

Only about 1 in 4 Black residents said they were “very confident” local police would treat them with courtesy and respect, compared with 1 in 3 Hispanic residents (33%) and nearly half (47%) of White residents said the same.

At the same time, a greater share of Black (52%) and Hispanic (59%) fragile community residents said they wanted police to spend more time in their area, compared with 46% of White residents.

During a webinar discussing the report, Lloyd explained it as a matter of balancing residents’ need for a secure environment while also addressing their concerns about mistreatment by the police. 

“This finding is somewhat counterintuitive to some of the discussions and the narratives that are out there in terms of police presence,” Lloyd said. “But what this research is telling us is we do see in terms of the police reform proposals that are being reported, that there is this need for balancing the concerns of residents with unfair treatment and their concerns around being treated unfairly by the police.” 

2.    Fragile community residents struggle with their current income levels
Last year, nearly half (47%) of all Americans said they were “living comfortably” on their current income, while just 1 in 5 (20%) of fragile community residents felt the same way. While responses varied across regions, when presented with a list of 14 potential barriers to opportunity to overcome, people most frequently pointed to a lack of enough jobs that offer career advancement (39%) and drug or alcohol addiction (35%). 

3.    Self-confidence dominates across demographics – and health matters a lot
About 7 in 10 fragile community residents said they were “very confident” or “confident” that they could improve their own lives. 
Researchers found that the best predictors of confidence came from self-reported health status. They also found that education, social capital, and building awareness of personal strengths are also strongly linked to self-confidence.

4.    Healthcare quality lags in fragile communities

Only a third (33%) of fragile community residents described their health as “excellent” or “very good,” while about the same share (31%) described it as “fair” or “poor.” While nearly three-quarters (74%) of all Americans said they were satisfied with the availability of healthcare in their area, just 58% of fragile community residents said the same.

5.    From K-12 and beyond, education is a significant doorway to opportunity
Forty percent of fragile community residents said they were satisfied with the quality of K-12 education rates in their area. Residents who agreed that schools are committed to building students’ strengths are more likely to be satisfied.
While more than half (55%) of fragile community residents said a college education is “very important,” just 28% said they “strongly agree” or “agree” that all people in their area have access to an affordable college education.

“As a former college president, I can tell you this firsthand: There’s nothing more powerful than seeing a first-generation college student graduate from college. That is a big deal,” said TMCF President & CEO Harry L. Williams, who previously served as president of Delaware State University. “A first-generation college student graduating lifts the whole community up,” he said.

6.    Pandemic or not, finding a job is key concern

At the time the survey was conducted, the national unemployment rate was around 3.5%. As of early August 2020, the national rate stood at 10.2% amid economic stability surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

That rate, while approaching historic overall levels, is still lower than the 1 in 6 (16.7%) of fragile community residents who at the time of the survey were jobless and looking for work.

Read the full report here, and search the full Opportunity Dashboard with three years of data here.