The circumstances a child is born into, coupled with longstanding patterns of discrimination, largely determine the life that child can achieve.
Many children from low-income families, communities of color, and rural areas simply do not have the same possibilities – at home, in school, or in their communities – that other Oregonians do.
In 2016, the OCF board recognized that to succeed with the foundation’s mission to improve the lives of all Oregonians, OCF must address these gaps in opportunity.
The adoption of the opportunity gap lens provided both an organizing framework for much of our existing work and provided a focus for new programs and initiatives moving forward. In addition, this framework allowed us to focus and strengthen our communications and our public policy and advocacy work. The OCF board renewed its commitment to addressing the opportunity gap through the foundation’s 2019 strategic plan. One section of this plan is focused on advancing opportunity, with a goal of increasing public and private investment in early childhood and other family supports.
The Opportunity Gap in America and Oregon
OCF’s opportunity gap journey began with sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2016 book Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis. Through quantitative data paired with in-depth case studies of families in communities across the country, Putnam illustrated how children from low-income families receive far less opportunity than their higher-income peers, and how this gap in opportunity has increased since the 1950s.
As Putnam brought the opportunity gap to readers across the country using his sociological approach, economist Raj Chetty analyzed “big data” to investigate the impact of being born into poverty on prospects for future earnings. By analyzing decades of data from the IRS, Chetty and his team determined that children who are born poor are more likely to stay poor as adults rather than move up the income ladder—a finding that flies in the face of the defining story of America — that by working hard one can pull oneself up by the bootstraps.
In 2017, OCF published Toward a Thriving Future: Closing the Opportunity Gap for Oregon’s Kids (the 2017 installment of OCF’s Tracking Oregon’s Progress — or TOP Indicators — project). This report provided Oregon-specific opportunity gap data organized into three domains: neighborhoods and communities, family stability and supports, and education. The challenges faced by Oregon’s children mirror the national data: one in five Oregon children live in poverty and in a majority of Oregon’s counties, children who are born in poverty will most likely remain in poverty as adults. Further, children’s family structure and stability impact their chances for future success, and many Oregon children are raised in single-parent families and in families that lack financial security. And gaps in educational opportunity start early and persist, with low-income children and children of color less likely to receive quality early childhood experiences or high-quality K-12 education and enrichment experiences.
The challenges faced by Oregon’s children mirror the national data: one in five Oregon children live in poverty and in a majority of Oregon’s counties, children who are born in poverty will most likely remain in poverty as adults.
Several landmark publications focusing on solutions were produced in response to the national data illustrating the prevalence, and consequences, of the growing opportunity gap. Robert Putnam led a national cross-sector, cross-party coalition called the Saguaro Seminar that resulted in a series of white papers outlining recommendations to address the opportunity gap. Similarly, the Brookings Institute and the American Enterprise Institute produced a joint report with their recommendations. In addition, the Urban Institute, the Gates Foundation, and Harvard partnered to create the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty; this group also produced a report with recommendations for policy and programs.
There was remarkable agreement across these groups about the programs and policies that could best address the opportunity gap. The groups focused on issues relating to neighborhoods and communities; economic security; job training and availability; family and parenting; and education.
These recommendations suggest that solutions need to come from both the national and state policy levels as well as from local communities themselves. This need to focus at the local level as well as the national level informed the creation of the Community Foundation Opportunity Network (CFON). CFON is a national network of approximately 50 community foundations that are committed to supporting solutions for addressing the opportunity gap. OCF was one of the original CFON members and OCF’s Chief Community Impact Officer Sonia Worcel sits on the 8-member CFON operational leadership team. The network provides opportunities for participating foundations to learn from each other and from national experts such as Putnam, as well as access to in-depth strategy development coaching.
Visit the Oregon Community Foundation to learn more about what they do at https://oregoncf.org