How will we know? The need for opportunity indicators

Every candidate out on the campaign trail wants to improve opportunity in America. The question is—what do they mean? To be even more specific, how will we know if opportunity has been improved? This is the question I’ve tackled in my contribution to a new book, The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, published by Springer and the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

From rhetoric to metrics

While the U.S. is a world leader in opportunity rhetoric, it is something of a laggard for opportunity metrics—specifically, in terms of intergenerational mobility rates, which is what I mean by ‘opportunity’. (If you mean something else, you’ll want different metrics).

Attempts have been made. In 2010, President Obama signed legislation intended to create a Key National Indicators System, following advice from a commission of experts. A budget of $70 million was set aside. The commission was appointed in 2010 but never convened. The money—which was included in a provision of the Affordable Care Act—was never appropriated.

As David Grusky and his colleagues have argued, trying to promote mobility without better data is like “formulating monetary and labor market policy without knowing whether unemployment is increasing or decreasing.”

What makes a good indicator?

Of course there is no absence of indicators, frameworks, and models. But too often these simply add to the noise, rather than acting to align resources and incentivize policy makers. So how do you select a good indicator? Drawing heavily on a paper by Clifford Cobb and Craig Rixford, here are some pointers:

  1. A clear conceptual basis is needed—otherwise you end up with a forest of numbers but no path.
  2. A number is not necessarily a good indicator—just because a number is available does not mean it is “getting at” the trend or factor you are interested in.
  3. There is no such thing as a “value-free” indicator—the simple selection of a particular indicator is a value judgment. It’s better to be clear and upfront about that.
  4. Comprehensiveness is the enemy of effectiveness—five strong indicators are better than 105 indicators in terms of focusing political energy.
  5. Indicators should attempt to reveal causes, not symptoms—especially in terms of promoting social mobility.

Four cornerstones of a policy architecture for opportunity

If we get serious about opportunity and social mobility, I suggest in my chapter that there are at least four steps that should be taken:

  1. Set a long-term national goal for intergenerational mobility. For instance, increasing the proportion of people born in the bottom income quintile making it to the middle quintile or higher to 50 percent (right now it’s closer to 40 percent).
  2. Create a “dashboard” of annual opportunity indicators, following in the footsteps of both the UK and the State of Colorado.
  3. Invest in data, including the creation of an American Opportunity Survey as proposed by Grusky et al. A great deal could be achieved by simply linking together existing administrative data sets.
  4. Establish an Office of Opportunity, as I proposed in an earlier paper. Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute has since made a related proposal for an Opportunity, Evidence, and Innovation Office (OEIO), based in the White House; Opportunity Nation has also recently called for the establishment of a White House Office of Opportunity along similar lines.

The restoration of opportunity is not a matter of opinion or rhetoric. It is a matter of fact. If we are serious about a project to restore opportunity, we need to know when we’ve arrived.