What It Takes to Have a Culture of Opportunity

by Jennifer Marshall
A new publication brings attention to issues that matter for Americans’ freedom to thrive.

Opening the doors of opportunity to every American is an all-hands-on-deck effort. It requires policy reforms and community leadership. It means focusing on a range of issues from unwed childbearing to educational opportunity to economic indicators.

The Index of Culture and Opportunity, a new annual publication by the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation, is designed to focus sustained policy and civil-society attention on key areas that matter for Americans’ freedom to thrive.

The Index tracks leading social and economic indicators of opportunity. It reports on 31 indicators, based on widely recognized, regularly updated national data. Each indicator’s change over the last ten-year period from available data lets readers see whether the indicator is, overall, heading on the right track or wrong track.

What should we make of these trends? Twenty-one contributors from Heritage, other think tanks, universities, and the media explain why the trends matter in our efforts to strengthen society.

Many of the indicators in the 2014 Index are not headed in the right direction. We need sustained attention, among policymakers and in neighborhoods across the country, to get back on track and improve opportunity for all Americans.

Here are five take-aways from the inaugural Index of Culture and Opportunity:

Social and economic factors contribute to opportunity. Strong families and communities, a culture that promotes virtue, limited government, and economic freedom all matter for the future of opportunity in America.

Character matters, on both an individual and a community level. As David Azerrad and Ryan Anderson write in the introduction to the Index: “Opportunity is not merely the absence of artificially imposed impediments. It is also the capacity to pursue happiness, individually and in community.”

The family centered on marriage plays a critical role in providing the foundation necessary for the individual enjoyment of freedom and pursuit of opportunity. When this most basic institution breaks down, it has profound repercussions. In just one example, Larry Mead explains how non-marriage and non-work are intertwined.

Policy incentives influence individual choices and shape the environment in which individuals are able to pursue opportunity. Welfare policy that offers a handout rather than a hand up has discouraged work and marriage. Regulatory and tax burdens are hampering the capacity of entrepreneurs to launch new job-creating ventures.

Focus and leadership make a difference. The majority of the indicators are on the wrong track, but a number of those that are heading in the right direction have this in common: They have received sustained focus across a variety of platforms. The well-documented failures of public education have led to sustained and successful calls for greater educational choice. Four decades of pro-life effort in culture and law correlate with a declining abortion rate. As Kathryn Lopez’s introduction to the Culture indicators explains, it is possible to get our culture back on track through hard work, creativity, and concentrated effort to change policy and society.

The Index of Culture and Opportunity is the latest in a line of tracking reports from the Heritage Foundation, joining the Index of Economic Freedom as an annual publication. And Bill Bennett taught us the virtue of tracking cultural indicators with his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, published over a decade ago in conjunction with Heritage, and as a popular book that spurred attention to these critical issues.

The character of our culture shapes America’s economic strength and ability to lead in the world. The Index of Culture and Opportunity is a tool for Americans’ exercise of self-government, as we seek to form that character in a way that opens the doors of opportunity for all.

— Jennifer Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation.