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Saturday, Jul 21 2012 10:00 PM

We must focus on closing America's opportunity gap

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    Melody Barnes

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By MELODY BARNES

Important ideological differences divide Republicans and Democrats on many issues, but there is one tenet of American life that should prompt bipartisan action: ensuring that all people -- regardless of class, race, ethnicity, gender or ZIP code -- have opportunities to rise as far as talent and hard work can take them. Our future depends on it. Whether it is called revitalizing the American dream, revving up the engine of economic mobility or simply creating opportunity, that promise is now under threat for millions.

Hard economic times have illuminated the roots of the opportunity gap: stubborn unemployment, stagnating wages, slipping educational attainment, persistent inequality and weak -- or nonexistent -- mobility for those at the bottom. But these systemic challenges are deeper than the current economic cycle, for America can't be successful if only our most privileged have access to the American dream.

America has long been praised as a classless society. But today, only 4 percent of children born at the bottom of the income ladder make it to the top. Economic mobility is far higher in Canada, France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.

There are no easy, simple solutions, but there are pathways forward. For example, according to Brookings Insitution scholars, only 2 percent of Americans who finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait to have children until they are married and 21 or older end up in poverty. Though there are important exceptions, roughly 75 percent of those who don't have the opportunity to succeed in school, don't work full time and are not raising a family in a stable environment become stuck on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

It's time to have a constructive conversation about these complex and related issues; foster personal responsibility where it's lacking; and help individuals support and nurture their families -- as so many want to do. Mobility is closely tied to educational achievement, stable families and good wages that are the result of productive work in an economy that increasingly rewards those with skills.

The persistent and binary debates -- do we need more or less government or do we simply let the markets work -- have worn thin, as communities across America bring together all sectors to find real solutions. Examples abound of school districts boosting high school graduation rates, communities reducing teenage pregnancy, and programs giving youth who are out of school and unemployed the education and training they need to get a decent-paying job. We can build from this progress.

To do so, we have joined Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan, multisector coalition focused on restoring economic mobility and helping to close the nation's crippling skills gap. Solutions include high-quality early childhood education, encouraging stable families and mentors for disadvantaged children, putting in place the reforms to increase high school and college graduation rates, connecting education to available careers, and expanding the earned income tax credit.

One area that deserves more attention is career and technical education. An estimated 20 million jobs through 2018 will require workers with an occupational certificate or two-year associate degree. Better connections among high schools, community colleges and employers would keep more students on track to stay in school and get the training they need for work. Multiple pathways to successful careers must permeate our education system, because we understand that four-year college isn't the path for everyone.

Another focus for Opportunity Nation is the 6.7 million Americans aged 16 to 24 who are out of school and unemployed -- costing taxpayers $93 billion every year and $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in lost revenue and increased social services. National surveys show that such youth remain optimistic about their futures, want opportunities to earn an income while building their credentials in school, seek role models in successful peer mentors, business leaders and college professors, and want to give back to their communities.

Innovative programs like Year Up, YouthBuild and The Corps Network demonstrate that most can be reconnected to service, school and productive work.

As this heated election continues, no political party has a monopoly on ideas to close the opportunity gap. Communities, meanwhile, are not waiting for election returns to find innovative solutions to boost mobility. That's the American spirit that will revive the American dream. Let's model what's working in communities to get the job done for the country.

Melody C. Barnes is former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council for President Barack Obama. John Bridgeland, who co-authored this article, is former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council for President George W. Bush. Both are members of the Leadership Council of Opportunity Nation. They wrote this for Politico.com.

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