Education, social capital are key to fragile community residents’ beliefs about opportunity

A new study released by the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO) at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund illustrates that an individual’s belief in their own abilities and potential are tied closely to access to education, training opportunities, and community support. This key insight is one of several unpacked from The State of Opportunity in America report, sponsored by the Charles Koch Foundation. 

For the third year, CAO partnered with Gallup to survey individuals in fragile communities with the goal of understanding and elevating their perspectives on barriers to opportunity. Respondents were asked about their access to economic and educational opportunities, their health and wellness compared to other Americans, and their relationships with law enforcement. CAO defines fragile communities as those suffering concentrated poverty, lower levels of education and employment, and those that have high proportions of residents struggling on a daily basis.

Through a survey of nearly 7,000 fragile community residents conducted by Gallup in late 2019 (prior to the coronavirus pandemic, when the national unemployment rate was below four percent), CAO found: 

  • While nearly half of Americans overall (47 percent) said they were “living comfortably” on their current income, just 20 percent of fragile community residents said the same. Indeed, 35 percent of fragile community residents said they found it “difficult” or “very difficult” to live on their current income.
  • Forty-one percent of fragile community residents said they have struggled in the last 12 months to afford food while only 22 percent of U.S. residents overall gave that answer. 
  • Fifty-eight percent of fragile community residents said they were satisfied with the availability of quality healthcare in their area, compared with 74 percent of Americans overall.
  • Just 28 percent of fragile community residents said they “strongly agree” or “agree” that all people in their area have access to an affordable college education and only 40 percent were “extremely satisfied” or “satisfied” with the quality of K-12 schools in their area. 

Previously-released results of the study also indicated fragile community residents are uniquely impacted by inequities in the nation’s criminal justice system. For example, nearly half of fragile community residents, particularly those who are Black or Hispanic, indicated they know “a lot” or at least “some” people who were treated unfairly by the police. These experiences have bearing on an individual’s confidence, perceptions of their environment, and expectations for their own treatment.

Despite the barriers these Americans face—which have only grown during the coronavirus pandemic and the recent civil unrest—they have confidence in their ability to create a better future for themselves and their families. 

Seven in 10 fragile community residents said they are “very confident” or “confident” they can improve their own lives. 

This belief depends on a few factors, and access to education is one of them. While nearly four in five individuals surveyed said a college education was an important thing to have, Gallup also found residents’ confidence in their futures rose steadily the more education they had attained. Only 59 percent of residents with less than a high school diploma said they were “very confident” or “confident” that they can improve their own lives, for example. That figure compares to 83 percent of residents who had a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

Optimism also increased based on individual respondents’ access to “social capital”—the networks of relationships that residents can draw on to find new jobs or training opportunities. The 2019 State of Opportunity survey included two new questions about fragile community residents’ access to local sources of support. Overall, 51 percent of fragile community residents said there are people in their social network they could turn to for financial help and 58 percent said there are community organizations they could turn to for aid. How an individual answered these questions was also closely connected to their level of confidence in their own ability to improve their lives. 

The Charles Koch Foundation shares CAO’s mission to empower people in fragile communities to elevate themselves and their peers from promise to prosperity through improved access to education. 

“This survey indicates individuals in fragile communities feel empowered to change and improve their own lives to reach their potential, and that feeling is connected to having access to quality educational opportunities,” said Charles Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers. “We are inspired by organizations like CAO that work to ensure equal treatment under the law and build programs that ensure more Americans have the tools they need to shape their future lives.”   

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