We have recovered a bit since 2010. The researchers now give the country an opportunity score of 53.9 using some additional data points (such as access to grocery stores or WiFi).
Even taking into account a bounce back from the woes of 2010, the new report shows a country that was much stronger economically in 1970 than it is now, even though at that time most people could not imagine a computer in their home, let alone their hand. The economic losses have been balanced by overall improvements in communities and education over that same time.
But the national picture masks important geographic differences. Location really matters when it comes to whether people have any hope of climbing the economic ladder. Mississippi's Harrison County (which houses Biloxi) has an opportunity score of 35.7, 10 points lower than the state score. New York City is at 76.5, 14 points above the New York state score and 23 points above the national score.
From a historical perspective, Michigan and Nevada are both in worse shape now than they were in 1970. Michigan is only slightly worse off, with a score of 46.2; it was 46.4 in 1970. Nevada's opportunity measure, which stood at 45.4 in 1970, took a nose dive between 2000 and 2010, dropping more than 10 points to 35.1. All other states have shown modest improvement. Virginia was the "most improved" state, moving from a 44.7 in 1970 to a 59.6, according to the report.
With its yearly index and the most recent historical report, the researchers are trying to expand the economic understanding of the United States beyond simple employment statistics. "If you have a job but it's not paying a living wage, that doesn't help. If you have a job but you can't get healthy food, that doesn't help," Edwards says. "These factors play a powerful role."
These added factors offer color and context to sometimes bland economic figures, but they can also complicate the picture in ways that can be tough to explain. For example, preschool enrollment has skyrocketed since 1970, which is the main reason the report's education score shows such a dramatic rise over time. Economists and educators generally view preschool as one of the best ways to ensure that disadvantaged children graduate from high school and (in theory) contribute to the economy. Yet the top-line economic figures in the historical report don't reflect economic improvement. The economic score actually dropped from 62.4 to 48.5 over 40 years.
That doesn't mean preschool hasn't helped, but you need more context (outside of the report's scope) to understand how early education is impacting the economy. The short answer is that it may be too soon to tell. In 1970, there was nowhere to go but up with preschool. Government-funded Head Start had been created just five years earlier, and only about 10 percent of 3- and 4-year olds attended some form of preschool, most of it private. Now, 48 percent of preschool-aged children are in a prekindergarten program. What's more, 28 percent of kids are in preschool programs that receive government funding, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.