Facts matter in policymaking. A growing number of data tools are available to help inform policymakers and the public of local conditions and trends so that policies to respond can be data-driven and achieve better, efficient results. The latest tool is the Opportunity Index released annually by the Opportunity Nation and Measure of America. This interactive website provides state and county level data on economic, education and civic factors that inform us about the levels of opportunity for residents.
North Carolina ranks 35th in the nation in terms of its level of opportunity with a total score of 50.6 below the national average of 52.8. The good news is that North Carolina’s score has improved since 2011 when the Opportunity Nation and Measure of America first released the index but this improvement, by 3.1 percentage points, was insufficient progress relative to other states to move our state up significantly in the rankings. NC was ranked 36th in 2011.
A few indicators were clearly moving in the wrong direction for North Carolina over this period: poverty increased from 16.3 percent to 18 percent, median household income declined by more than $2,000 and the number of 3- and 4- year olds in public or private preschool fell from 46.7 percent to 42.2 percent.
Within the state, the Opportunity Index shows significant variation in the level of opportunity by county. Among the counties with the highest opportunity score are Dare, Chatham, Orange, Wake and Union counties, while those with the lowest are Scotland, Duplin, Bladen and Vance counties. The major driver of the differences in these scores are high-school graduation, early childhood education enrollment levels and measures of civic life.
The data show clearly that an infrastructure of opportunity can be built in communities through public policy and civic engagement. Certainly with our state, public policy should play a significant role in reducing the different experiences across communities so that opportunity is not determined by where you live.