What Does Big Data Tell Us About the Land of Opportunity?

by Matt Rusten

Big data has revealed a shocking finding regarding the American dream: you have a better chance of achieving it if you don’t live in America. We Americans generally think of our country as the land of opportunity, that no matter where you’ve come from, you can improve your station in life through hard work.  But research by Raj Chetty at Stanford University reveals that for large swaths of people, they’d have a better chance of reaching the American Dream if they grew up in Canada. Or Great Britain. Or Denmark. In other words, America is no longer the leading candidate for the title, “The Land of Opportunity.”

A growing number of leading scholars and thinkers have revealed that economic opportunity is on the downswing in America. Whether it is Robert Putnam in Our Kids, Raj Chetty at the Equality of Opportunity Project, or Charles Murray in Coming Apart, a shift has occurred in our society. As David Brooks has written, “Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern.”

This trend should concern a broad range of people across the ideological and partisan spectrum. In particular, Christ followers are motivated to care for the vulnerable and help those in need because of its prominent emphasis throughout the Bible. The Torah, historical books, wisdom literature, the Prophets, Gospels, epistles and pastoral letters all include injunctions to care for the poor. City governments, business owners, non-profit leaders, and those across the political spectrum all come to this issue with similar concerns, even if underlying motivations or strategies to address it might vary.

If this concern is shared so widely among leaders in a community, an important question follows: What would a city-wide movement to address the opportunity gap look like? What could happen if individual people, faith communities, government leaders, non-profit leaders, and for-profit business owners were “all in” to expand opportunity in their communities? What could each groups’ contribution look like in pursuing this shared goal?

Individuals could begin to envision generosity not only as sacrificial giving, but also as sacrificial hiring. This is in line with the gleaning laws given in Leviticus, and modeled in the book of Ruth. Those who farmed land were to purposefully leave grain along the edges of their fields-- work that could have been done-- in order to provide opportunity to those who were willing to work to gather it for food. A modern day gleaning movement might look like individual households leaving meaningful work undone and instead hiring workers to clean the house, mow the yard, or paint rooms.

The gleaning laws in the Old Testament were often geared to help immigrants and widows. And who are the people in our context who are often in the house cleaning, yard work, manual labor business?  Our generosity, if we are biblical, ought to include hiring as well as giving--offering opportunity to those in our communities who are willing to work.

What about churches? A church might see its physical building as an economic asset, offering office space for aspiring entrepreneurs looking for an affordable place to start their business, like Rose City Church, in Pasadena, CA. They might use church building projects as opportunities to hire those in need of work in their communities, like Hope Community Church in Woodlawn, IL, who hired 50 workers off the streets over the course of two years. It might look like a church who identified an at risk population in those leaving the foster care system, and started a cafe business to hire them, give them training and meaningful work, and a chance to grow skills that will serve them for years to come.

What about city governments? Might they find ways to expand opportunity to those on the margins? Richard Berry, the mayor of Albuquerque, NM, saw a panhandler with a sign that read, “Want a job...anything helps,” and responded by creating a program called “There’s a Better Way,” which provides panhandlers the opportunity to work to beautify the city. And what was the outcome?

In less than a year since its start, the program has given out 932 jobs clearing 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks. And more than 100 people have been connected to permanent employment.

Or perhaps a city government might work with the business community and offer a summer jobs program for youth at risk of committing violent crimes. When Chicago tried the experiment in 2014, research from the University of Chicago revealed that the mere fact of a summer job reduced violent crime arrests among participants by 43%. Later, Chicago city leaders would remark, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Expanding opportunity for some led to a safer community for all.

What about businesses? Perhaps they might consider expanding opportunity for groups of people who have often been left on the margins of the job market. That’s what Weifield Group Electrical Contracting decided to do. They started a 4-year apprenticeship program (the time it takes in the electrical trade to become a journeyman and electrician) and partnered with non-profits in Denver to offer opportunity to those who may have struggled to find a job because of past mistakes like a felony or drug addiction. The result has been a team of workers who have experienced dignity and healing through meaningful work.

This all brings us to an important question. Can disparate groups work together for the common good? John Inazu, in his book, Confident Pluralism, has argued that while we might not all be able to agree on what the common good is, we can at least find common ground. And when it comes to expanding opportunity for the vulnerable in our communities, that may be one area where we can all agree.

thanks to Daniel Tseng for his cover photo