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New Study Gives Americans in Fragile Communities a Voice

New Study Gives Americans in Fragile Communities a Voice

by Steve Crabtree and Faith Gaines

Job shortages, inadequate access to higher education, health problems and high crime rates are the most common obstacles that fragile-community residents in the U.S. face in achieving the American dream. This confluence of challenges represents a powerful barrier to opportunity for many of those living in the nation's disadvantaged communities.

These are among some of the key findings from the inaugural The State of Opportunity in America report from Gallup, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO), the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries.

The report is based on in-depth focus groups and a representative survey of 6,230 Americans living in fragile communities -- defined as areas with high proportions of residents who struggle financially in their daily lives and have limited opportunities for social mobility. This research represents the first steps in an ongoing effort to provide insights that help guide CAO's mission to expand the educational, social and economic opportunities available to residents of fragile communities.

The study includes the following findings:

Fragile-Community Residents Struggle to Find Jobs, Afford Food

  • Almost half of America's fragile-community residents -- 44% -- say there were times in the past year when they did not have enough money to pay for food for themselves or their families. This is far higher than the 16% of Americans overall who say the same.
  • Ten percent of fragile-community residents are not employed and say they have been actively looking for employment in the past four weeks, despite national unemployment figures of 4.3% to 4.4% during the survey's field period. Among fragile-community residents who are actively looking for work, health problems are the most common challenge preventing them from taking jobs.
  • One-third of fragile-community residents (33%) say they have thought about starting a business but decided not to. The biggest barrier for fragile-community residents who are interested in starting a business is lack of personal savings.

Education Dramatically Improves Residents' Outlook

  • Fragile-community residents recognize the need for young people to attend college to expand the opportunities available to them. The vast majority -- 88% -- say a college education is "very important" or "important." However, 19% of residents agree that everyone in the U.S. has access to an affordable college education.
  • Residents' confidence in their ability to achieve their career goals, health goals and financial goals all rise substantially with any educational attainment beyond high school -- including vocational training and two-year associate degrees.

Majority of Residents Favor Greater Police Presence in Their Area

  • The majority of fragile-community residents (59%) say they would like to relocate permanently given the opportunity. Among this group, three-fourths cite crime as a major reason (51%) or minor reason (25%) for wanting to do so. A majority of fragile-community residents (54%) say they would like the police to spend more time in their community, while just 5% say they would like the police to spend less time there.
  • Residents' responses regarding the police presence in their area are related to their confidence that they will not be treated unfairly when they interact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Almost one-fourth (23%) believe people like them are treated "unfairly" or "very unfairly" by their local police, and 32% feel this way about the courts and legal system. Among black residents, these figures rise to 35% and 47%, respectively.
  • Residents say they would prefer to spend more money and resources on attacking the root causes of crime through education and training (84%) than on improving law enforcement with more police, prisons and judges (16%).

Residents Still Hopeful About the Future

  • Despite the array of challenges facing residents of America's fragile communities, the study offers evidence that these individuals are generally optimistic about the future. Residents were asked to rate their lives on a zero-to-10 ladder scale based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, where zero represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life.
  • On average, fragile-community residents rate their current lives at 6.07. However, when asked to predict where they think their lives will be five years from now, their average rating rises to 7.43. The corresponding gap between current and future life ratings among Americans overall is less than one scale point (0.84), suggesting that fragile-community residents are somewhat more hopeful than Americans in general that their lives will improve in the coming years.


The long-term goal of this research project is to help illuminate paths to a brighter future for fragile-community residents. The findings will be instrumental in designing public and private sector initiatives that help Americans in such areas improve not just their own lives, but the stability and prosperity of their families and broader communities as well. This research lays the foundation for a long-term exploration of barriers to opportunity and the creation of evidence-based solutions to these challenges.

To read the full report, please visit


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