Maryland ranks among the top 10 states in the nation for providing opportunity, according to the 5th annual Opportunity Index released Tuesday. Developed by Opportunity Nation and Measure of America, the index measures economic, educational and civic factors that expand or restrict upward mobility. While being ranked 9th in the country for providing the most opportunity for socioeconomic mobility is something for our state to be proud of (we were one tenth of a percentage point behind Iowa), the celebration needs to be tempered somewhat because opportunity in Maryland, as in the rest of the country, is highly dependent upon one's ZIP code.
In a state with 6 million people spread across 9,700 square miles, it is little surprise that Marylanders are quite a diverse people. As a state, we are generally well-educated, relatively healthy and have the highest median household income in the country. Yet, as we all know, there are lies, there are damn lies and then there are statistics. In Maryland, the statistics don't lie, they simply don't hold enough context to tell the whole truth.
When we look at the prevalence of poverty in Maryland, for example, the Free State has the third lowest poverty rate in the country (10.3 percent), well below the national average of 15.8 percent. But when we look at the rates of poverty throughout Maryland, Howard County, with its rate of 4.6 percent verses Baltimore City with a rate of 23.8 percent, there is little question that ZIP codes matter where opportunity is concerned. Not by coincidence, Howard County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation based on median household income, earned an A for opportunity this year, one of only 5 As in the entire country. Baltimore City, on the other hand, had the fourth lowest grade in Maryland (C-), ahead of Caroline County, Dorchester County and Somerset County (which actually earned a D+).
Close to one in four Baltimoreans lives in poverty. Nearly one in five people aged 16-24 in the city are disconnected from school or work — that is nearly 18,000 people. Median household income in Baltimore is 58 percent of Maryland's as a whole. And, regrettably, the riots reminded us of how pervasive crime is in Baltimore — but perhaps not so surprising given that Baltimore's violent crime rate is 374 percent greater than the national average.
So how can Maryland improve its opportunity score? For starters, we need to increase the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who are either in school or working. Maryland has made progress in this area — 11,000 fewer young adults are disconnected from school or work compared to three years ago — but we can do better. We also need to dramatically reduce the incidence of violent crime in our state. Where Maryland ranks 9th from the top in overall opportunity, we also rank 9th from the top where violent crime is concerned.
One of the biggest steps that we can take is to increase the percentage of Marylanders who hold some form of postsecondary credential. Higher education is synonymous with opportunity, and Maryland should continue to make progress toward its "55 by 2025" goal (55 percent of adult Marylanders holding at least an associate's degree by 2025). Howard County (A) and Montgomery County (A-) are already there, but the rest of the state has a long way to go. In Caroline County (C-), for example, barely one out of every five adults 25 and over has at least an associate's degree. Without some kind of postsecondary credential today, full-time jobs that pay a livable wage will be increasingly hard to come by. But without a high school diploma? Teenagers and young adults significantly increase the likelihood that they will become dependent on social services, engage in criminal activity, and, in general, fall off the opportunity ladder that so many of us try to raise up for them every day.
The 2015 Opportunity Index illustrates where Maryland's leaders should focus their efforts "to put Maryland on a new path, toward opportunity and prosperity for all of our citizens," as Gov. Larry Hogan said in his State of the State address earlier this year. Governor Hogan should convene a Maryland Opportunity Summit to identify strategies for how to improve socioeconomic mobility for all Marylanders. In doing so, he will continue to forge that new direction for Maryland that he spoke of, especially for those Marylanders who seem to have been left behind.
Greg Schuckman was named as one of 100 Opportunity Leaders in 2015 by Opportunity Nation and served as a commissioner on the Maryland Higher Education Commission from 2011-2015; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.