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Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America
Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Mary Louise Lennon, and Anita Sands


It's not what you know, it's who you know. We've all heard the phrase. It's true, of course, and always has been, that who you know is important. But in today's technology-driven, globalized world, what you know matters more than ever.

The set of skills that is most rewarded in terms of employment and wages has become increasingly deep and broad, extending beyond strong reading, mathematics, and writing skills to include analytical, technical, and problem-solving skills. Rapidly evolving technologies have also upped the ante – requiring workers to be increasingly nimble and able to learn on their own. In the fast-paced competitive global marketplace, those who can bring higher-level skills and the flexibility to adapt are in demand. Those without such skills are not faring well and will only fall further behind.5

The broad set of cognitive skills and knowledge that is necessary today, along with interpersonal skills such as collaboration and teamwork, and character traits such as motivation, persistence, reliability, and self-discipline, is often referred to as human capital. Human capital has always been important, but it is increasingly rewarded in terms of employment and wages. In America today, to succeed, or even get by, it is what you know.

Of course, who you know, broadly speaking, is important as well. The family into which you are born and raised, the social networks that connect you with fellow members of religious organizations, clubs, or teams who provide support and advice, the social norms and values that guide your behaviors – all of these factors, collectively termed social capital, impact life outcomes as well. For any individual, positive social capital serves to foster development and success.

Human and social capital have never constituted independent drivers of life outcomes. We are, however, seeing changes in the nature of their relationship. In previous generations, strong social networks and norms of civic engagement transcended socioeconomic classes. People tended to marry at similar rates regardless of their education levels; voting rates were similar in both affluent and disadvantaged communities; children in most neighborhoods participated in sports and clubs. But over the past generation or two, social capital has become more strongly related to human capital; that is, those with more human capital also tend to have the networks, norms, and behaviors that provide the most benefits in today's environment.6

The strengthening of this relationship has contributed to a polarization in the accumulation of human and social capital that translates into distinctly different life outcomes for individuals and, as the generational cycle plays out, leads to differential prospects for their children. The transmission of opportunity from one generation to the next is increasingly driven by a compounding of advantage or disadvantage, with one advantage leading to another for some children, while one disadvantage is followed by the next for others. Although the lottery of birth has always shaped an individual's life chances, it is increasingly determining opportunity in America today – and this reality stands in stark contrast to the American Dream.7

If opportunity is to be distributed equitably, two conditions must hold. A range of pathways must be open to everyone, and individuals must believe, based on their experiences and observations of the world, that they can make progress along those pathways if they invest in themselves.

What do we mean when we talk about opportunity in America? The idea of opportunity is embedded in our national DNA. Historically America has been seen as the land of opportunity. The American Dream is predicated on opportunity. It is easy for politicians to talk about and popular for columnists to write about, because we all understand what opportunity means – or think we do. Often opportunity simply represents a vague ideal, expressed very generally as in this definition: Opportunity is a "situation or condition favorable for attainment of a goal."8 Exactly what a favorable situation might be or how that goal is specified can result in very different discussions about what opportunity in America means.9

The ETS Opportunity in America initiative defines opportunity specifically as pathways to the development of human and social capital. There is clear evidence that gaps in human and social capital contribute to widening inequality in life outcomes. This inequality, in turn, contributes to disparities in opportunity for the next generation, setting up a cycle of accelerated advantage or disadvantage. If opportunity is to be more widely shared, it is important to understand the forces governing access to opportunity or, using our metaphor, access to the pathways for developing human and social capital.

Pathways may be more or less open depending on a number of interrelated factors. These include family structure and parenting practices, financial resources, and neighborhood and community characteristics, as well as the features and practices of institutions such as schools, religious organizations, health care agencies, and the criminal justice system. Looking even more broadly, these factors operate within a larger context, with economic, policy, and political dynamics all influencing the distribution of opportunity.

Although the forces governing access to opportunity are certainly powerful, individuals are not helpless. Opportunity is not simply something presented to people, particularly as they grow into adulthood. Individuals make choices about which of the available paths to pursue, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. As a result, no set of interventions or policies can guarantee outcomes such as educational achievement or economic success. But if opportunity is to be distributed equitably, two conditions must hold. A range of pathways must be open to everyone, and individuals must believe, based on their experiences and observations of the world, that they can make progress along those pathways if they invest in themselves.

This narrative begins by looking in detail at the dimensions of human and social capital and their relationship to adult outcomes. Economic and social changes have taken us to a point where human and social capital are both more strongly related and increasingly consequential. The rewards to those with greater skills and stronger social capital are growing, while for those on the low end, rewards are declining. Such differential outcomes are critically important not just to the individuals who experience them, but to their children as well.

The transmission of opportunity across generations is addressed next, with particular emphasis on the development of human and social capital in the early years. We describe how a child's endowment and family environment at birth interact over time with forces large and small, resulting in a young adult who is more – or less – ready to take responsibility for his or her future. Initial differences in opportunity are often magnified over time, resulting in wide gaps in human and social capital and increasing inequality in life outcomes.

We conclude by looking to the future and proposing a framework for action. Given the challenges America faces, we argue that a broad perspective is required, one that supports long-term commitments to evidence-based interventions and policies that can be adapted for communities and populations with both different needs and different resources. In addition, efforts need to focus on building coalitions among multiple institutions, including families, schools, health care providers, and neighborhoods. Finally, to best leverage work that is underway in communities across the country, we must interweave already-successful approaches with new interventions that, taken together, address the needs of individuals over the course of their lives, from infancy and early childhood through adulthood as they, in turn, become parents, workers, and community members.


5 Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

6 Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015); Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010  (New York: Crown Forum, 2013).

7 The phrase "American Dream" was first coined by the historian James Truslow Adams, who said, in part, that it was "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." James Truslow Adams papers, 1918-1949, Columbia University Libraries,

8, s.v. "opportunity," accessed September 10, 2015,

9 See Leslie McCall, "Political and Policy Responses to Problems of Inequality and Opportunity: Past, Present, and Future," in The Dynamics of Opportunity in America: Evidence and Perspectives, eds. Irwin Kirsch and Henry Braun (New York: Springer, 2016) for a discussion of the related issues of opportunity and inequality.