A Review of Tools Measuring Opportunity in the United States

Research BriefPoverty & Economic Well-beingSep 3 2020

Researchers at universities, policy institutes, and other nonprofits have developed multiple tools that put data in the hands of policymakers and other decision makers to make access to opportunity more equitable in their communities. Opportunity refers to the sets of circumstances that make it possible for an individual to achieve their full potential. A holistic view of opportunity cannot be limited to economic circumstances and must include the educational, health-related, and community conditions and resources that impact one’s ability to thrive.

Many of these tools are intended to compile and analyze timely and critical national, state, and county-level data. Additionally, they can demonstrate to communities how opportunity changes over time, and make data readily accessible to individuals and groups that influence the systems, services, and programs that regularly create or influence opportunity and well-being. Efforts to improve access to opportunity can occur simultaneously at many levels, which makes making measuring progress a difficult task. Small, local social service organizations, for example, may not have the capacity to regularly track changing environmental and social factors (e.g., healthy food access, incarceration rates, preschool enrollment, etc.). Opportunity-focused data tools can be used to track successes and challenges and to illuminate important contextual factors such as leverage points that can open opportunity to more people and improve outcomes.

Opportunity-focused data tools have existed since 1990, when the KIDS COUNT Data Center began producing an index on the well-being of children. In 2012, Opportunity Nation released the Opportunity Index, one of the first tools to provide population-level indicators that assessed opportunity at the county, state, and national levels for all ages. Also in 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute developed the County Health Rankings tool to measure the health of communities.

In the intervening years, multiple other tools have also been developed. Each has entered the market with a unique focus and presentation of data, resulting in tools that may be similar in design but are geared toward different purposes. Many of these tools support a more thorough examination of which groups in the United States have access to the greatest opportunity and mobility. Potential users may explore which tool best suits the problems they are trying to solve or offers the data they want to monitor.

Opportunity is not equally distributed in the United States. Both covert and overt racism drive disparities for people of color. Given the current national conversation around racial equity, tools that dissagregate by race and ethnicity are called out explicitly in this review so that researchers and practitioners better know where to turn for that data. We hope this review helps identify data sources that can be useful as we advance a national conversation around racial equity and improving Opportunity in communities of color.

With funding from the Forum for Youth Investment, Opportunity Nation and Child Trends jointly maintain Opportunity Index, an online interactive data tool that presents measures of opportunity on the national, state, and county levels. This review will provide community leaders and changemakers with a clear picture of each tool’s foci, features, and indicators.