Iowa Ranks #8 Nationally in Overall Access to Opportunity

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October 7, 2015

BOSTON, MA - The fifth annual U.S. Opportunity Index shows that access to opportunity has increased nearly 9 percent nationally since 2011, reflecting a dramatically improved post-recession employment picture, higher high school graduation rates and a significant drop in violent crime, among other factors. Despite these gains, increasing poverty and income inequality combined with stagnant wages continue to impede progress for middle and lower income communities.

Over the past five years, all 50 states and Washington DC and three-quarters of counties have improved on the Opportunity Index, an annual composite measure of 16 key economic, educational and civic indicators that expand or constrict access to economic mobility. The Index ranks each state and grades more than 2,600 counties A-F each year.

Yet, the 2015 Opportunity Index also reflects the nation’s uneven economic recovery. Millions of Americans are being left behind, including 5.5 million young adults, 13.8 percent of youth ages 16-24, who are disconnected from school and work. There are higher rates of poverty (+10.5%) and income inequality (+3.4%) and lower median family incomes (-4.2%) in 2015 than there were five years ago.

Iowa ranks 8th highest nationally in 2015 and has placed in the top 10 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia each year since the Opportunity Index was first launched in 2011.

Iowa has the highest high school graduation rate in the country – with nearly 90 percent of students receiving a diploma within four years. The state ranks #2 in country in expanding access to medical doctors to residents since 2011 and has the fourth lowest unemployment rate, 3.6 percent in 2015 compared with 5.1 percent nationally – a drop of nearly 37 percent since 2011. Iowa also increased the percent of adults with at least an associate’s degree by 6.3 percent since 2011.

Iowa has the third-lowest rate of youth disconnection, with 8.8 percent of 16-24 year olds neither in school nor working, a decrease of 2 percent since 2011.

However, that means that in 2015, Iowa has 34,655 disconnected young adults.

And more Iowans are living in poverty, reflecting a national trend. Nearly 13 percent (12.7%) of Iowans lived at or below the federal poverty threshold in 2015 compared with 11.8 percent in 2011. In 2015, 392,727 Iowans live at or below the federal poverty threshold defined as $24,250 for a family of four.

The Opportunity Index data over five years demonstrates that access to upward mobility varies greatly by geography, and that some states and counties have wider opportunity gaps than others. A child growing up in Somerset County, New Jersey has a far better chance at going to college, getting a family-sustaining job and living in a safe neighborhood than does a similar child born in Marion County, Florida, even though those two counties have similar population sizes and unemployment rates. Somerset County received an A- on the 2015 Opportunity Index, while Marion County received a C.

“This five-year view of opportunity clearly shows that where you grow up plays too large a role in access to the American Dream,” said Opportunity Nation Executive Director Monique Rizer. “In too many places, zip codes determine how far one goes in life. This persistent opportunity gap, particularly for our nation’s youth, is unacceptable.”

While the percentage of young adults who are neither in school nor working has decreased slightly to 13.8 percent in 2015, youth disconnection rates remain higher than they were pre-recession, 12.9 percent. The two factors that correlate most closely with overall opportunity, as measured by the Opportunity Index, are the percentage of people who live in poverty and the percentage of disconnected youth ages 16-24.

In Louisiana, West Virginia, Mississippi, Nevada and Washington DC, nearly 1 in 5 young adults ages 16-24 are disconnected. In contrast, fewer than 10% of youth are disconnected in Nebraska, North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Vermont.

“We all pay a steep price for youth disconnection in lost talent, less resilient communities, lost tax revenue and higher need for social services,” said Sarah Burd-Sharps, co-director of Measure of America. “We must do better and help young adults, particularly low-income youth and youth of color, connect to meaningful education and career pathways.”

“As the 2016 presidential race gathers momentum, it is critical that candidates and voters have a clear picture of where access to the American Dream is expanding and constricting,” said Russell Krumnow, managing director of Opportunity Nation. “No one sector or political party can solve the opportunity gap alone.  The Index helps policymakers and community leaders focus on cross-sector and bipartisan solutions that can improve the lives, prospects and communities of Americans.”

Inside the 2011 - 2015 Opportunity Index:

Despite an increase in overall opportunity (8.9% from 2011-2015), the five-year landscape reflects several alarming trends:

  • Youth disconnection (13.8%) remains higher than pre-recession levels (12.9% in 2007)
  • Poverty has increased 10.5%; 15.8% in 2015 compared with 14.3% in 2011
  • Income inequality has increased 3.4%; in 2015, households at the 80th percentile have incomes 5 times higher than those at the 20th percentile
  • Median household income has fallen 4.2%, from $51,050 in 2011 to $48,906 in 2015

Other indicators that have lost ground 2011-2015:

  • Access to banking institutions -7.0%
  • Volunteerism -4.0%
  • Preschool enrollment -2.3%

Indicators that have improved 2011-2015:

  • Unemployment rate -44%
  • Internet access +13.7%
  • Group membership +13.4%
  • Access to health care +10.2%
  • Violent crime -10.2%
  • High school graduation rate +9%
  • Postsecondary completion rate +6.4%
  • Affordable housing +4.5%
  • Access to healthy food +1.3%

2015 Opportunity Index State Rankings:


TOP 10 2015 RANK BOTTOM 10 2015 RANK
Vermont 1 South Carolina 42
Massachusetts 2 West Virginia 43
Connecticut 3 Arizona 44
North Dakota 4 Arkansas 45
New Hampshire 5 Alabama 46
New Jersey 6 Georgia 47
Nebraska 7 Louisiana  48
Iowa 8 Mississippi 49
Maryland 9 Nevada 50
Virginia 10 New Mexico 51


Opportunity in Iowa - Iowa Gets an 8

Opportunity in Polk County - Polk County Gets a B-

Visit to explore the complete dataset and methodology.

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