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Reshaping Opportunity in America

Over a decade ago, my mother and I packed our hopes and dreams in two large suitcases and carried them across the vast Pacific to America. With no knowledge of English or source of income, we were unprepared for what it took to assimilate and survive in this new country. But like many others who came before us, my mother believed with conviction in the American Dream and its meritocracy, especially for her child.

In those early years, my mother worked relentlessly and overtime, earning less than $11,000 a year. We experienced housing instability, unemployment, and chronic stress, and witnessed the concentration of poverty. It also became apparent that a child’s future in America is too often predetermined by location, class, and race; as a result, opportunity is skewed and uneven.

I was reminded of my own experience when I came across a report produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation recently. It found that while children of color increasingly make up the face of America, their outlook can be grim. The Annie E. Casey Foundation developed the Race for Results index, which compares how children fare on key indicators across racial and ethnic groups and their opportunity for success from birth to adulthood.

African-American, American Indian, and Latino children continue to face the steepest barriers to opportunity and a better future, whereas Asian/Pacific Islander and White children had the highest index scores (776 and 704, respectively, out of 1,000). In contrast, Latino children’s index score was 404, American Indian children’s 387, and African-American’s only 345. A breakdown of the index scores reveals great disparities across racial and ethnic groups:

  • American Indian (56 percent) and Latino children (54 percent) are the least likely to participate in early childhood programs (e.g. preschool and kindergarten);
  • Only 37 percent of African-American children live in two-parent households;
  • African-American (50 percent), American Indian (49 percent), and Latino children (43 percent) are the most likely to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty;
  • Opportunity varies across different Asian subgroups, and children in Southeast Asian groups (e.g. Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese) face greater economic barriers to success;[1]
  • Latino children in immigrant families, in particular, fare the worst on nearly all measures.

For many children, opportunity is defined by location. African-American children fare the worst in Southern states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina, and Midwest states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

But another study I read last week reminded me that, despite these harsh statistics, we do have the power to undo patterns of inequality and create pathways to opportunity for all children. New evidence from the Abecedarian Project shows that high-quality early interventions can have a long-lasting impact on adult health outcomes – and we already knew they effectively mitigate the impacts of poverty on outcomes like school readiness and academic performance.

The new findings, published by Nobel Laureate James Heckman, also revealed that high-quality early interventions can have a long-lasting impact on adult health outcomes. Positive, healthy development contributes to physical health in early childhood that lays the groundwork for better health in adulthood; children (especially boys) in the intervention group demonstrated lower risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic disease in their mid-30s.

Taken as a whole, the old and new findings from the Abecedarian Project add ammunition to the ongoing conversations on the effectiveness of early childhood interventions and the nationwide movements to expand access to preschool in places like New York City and California. Strategic investments in high-quality early childhood programs, specifically a continuum of early learning and support services that start in infancy through age five, will set up all children from diverse backgrounds to thrive and lead healthy lives.

Although America struggles with problems of inequality, there is evidence pointing to how we can address it. We must ask ourselves what kind of America we want for all children and take steps in the right direction to reshape the opportunity landscape for a more equitable America.

[1] Children from Southeast Asian groups are significantly less likely to live in families with incomes at or above 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. For more information, see Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Race for Results: Building a path to opportunity for all children” (2014). 

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