Executive Summary



The 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity evaluates the social factors essential to sustain freedom and opportunity in America. Through charts that track social and economic changes and expert commentary that explains the trends, the Index reports on important indicators in American society and analyzes what they mean for our future.

What We Track
The Index tracks social and economic factors related to culture, poverty and dependence, and general opportunity in America. It monitors changes for 31 indicators, based on national data regularly updated and organized into three categories:

  • Cultural indicators, including data on family, religious practice, and civil society;
  • Poverty and dependence indicators related to marriage and poverty, workforce participation, and welfare spending and participation; and
  • General opportunity indicators, such as measures of education, jobs and wealth, and economic freedom.

How We Track
For each indicator, a chart provides the most recent year of data available as of March 2016 and historical data over the past one, five, and 10 years.1 In the chart, a red line designates the main indicator; in some cases, related data are displayed alongside using grayscale lines. A key above each chart shows the change over one-year, five-year, and 10-year periods (with exceptions in the case of a few indicators).

The primary focus of this Index and the commentators’ contributions is the 10-year change and its direction. That decade-long window allows us to observe what has happened over a longer period of time rather than focusing on short-term variations. This greater time horizon gives readers a feel for what has been happening regardless of changes in government or the state of the economy at any particular time. While examining annual data is helpful in some instances, it may not always be the most reliable approach for determining overall movement of a particular societal trend. This is particularly true with data affected by the business cycle, such as labor market and poverty indicators. It is also true for cultural trends that typically change quite gradually.

Commentary Providing Context
One of the unique aspects of the Index of Culture and Opportunity is the expert commentary to put data in context. Contributors include researchers at The Heritage Foundation and other think tanks, academic scholars, journalists, and practitioners. These commentators offer their insights in introductory essays and short commentary alongside each of the indicators.

As Michael Novak writes in the introduction to this volume, “Moral ecology is the new frontier of political economy: the culture in which the free society thrives — or destroys itself. The scouts at The Heritage Foundation who have contributed to and compiled this Index of Culture and Opportunity are leading the way in the most crucial exploration of our time.”

Each of the three sections of indicators begins with an introductory essay.

  • For the section on cultural indicators, Boise State University Professor of Political Science Scott Yenor, Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, observes that actions in the private realm powerfully shape public life.
  • For the poverty and dependence section, Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas discusses the safety-net reforms needed to truly help the vulnerable.
  • In the final section, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Senior Fellow and Director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute, explains why educational and economic freedom are critical to clear the way up the ladder of opportunity for everyone.

Within these three sections, each of the 31 indicators is accompanied by a commentary explaining what it means and why it matters for culture and opportunity in America. Whether written by a researcher, cultural commentator, or practitioner, these pieces help readers discern the significance of the changes within our current context.

Why It Matters
The Heritage Foundation seeks to advance conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. This Index is part of a set designed to assess our nation’s strength in these areas, along with the Index of Economic Freedom and the Index of U.S. Military Strength. Together, these indices measure America’s economic, social, and military strength to help inform policy and cultural conversations both in Washington and across the country.

Policymakers will find the foundational data they need to address issues involving:

  • Marriage, family, and civil society;
  • Welfare reform;
  • Reduced spending;
  • Economic growth; and
  • The opportunity of individuals in a free society to improve their circumstances.

Individuals can use this Index to inform their own efforts to shape the future of our culture, whether by raising the next generation, devoting efforts to overcoming neighborhood challenges, or participating in the public policy process.

Personal responsibility, concern for our neighbors, and public policy all influence the culture of opportunity. The 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity will equip those who are seeking to advance an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Culture and Opportunity tracks 31 social and economic indicators that shape opportunity in America. It presents the most recent data as well as longer-term trends for each indicator, focusing in particular on the past 10 years of available data to discern the trajectory of our culture.

In addition, experts from a variety of disciplines and organizations offer commentary to contextualize these trends and explain why they matter. As a number of the commentators observe, opportunity requires a particular cultural ecosystem to flourish. This Index reports on the health of that environment.

Section 1: Culture

  • While the marriage rate ticked up slightly between 2013 and 2014, it has been trending downward for decades. Between 2004 and 2014, the marriage rate dropped by 8.3 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women, or nearly 20 percent. “[T]he declining marriage rate is not so much a reflection that marriage is no longer desired, but that, in a culture of distrust and divorce, it is fragile,” write Amber and David Lapp.
  • The divorce rate saw a minor drop during the decade between 2004 and 2014, but it has been declining since it peaked in the 1980s. “From 1979 to 2014, the divorce rate dropped from 5.3 per 1,000 to 3.2 per 1,000, a whopping 40 percent decrease. But there is more to the story, and it should make us cautious in our celebration,” explains Julie Baumgardner.
  • From 2005 to 2015, the percentage of 12th graders who use illicit drugs increased from 23.1 percent to 23.6 percent. “We didn’t lose the drug war…we gave up on it. Now, particularly in the teen population, drug use is going up again,” writes Seth Leibsohn.
  • The abortion rate has declined steadily. Between 2001 and 2011, the abortion rate declined by four abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. “The factors underlying this decline and the contemporaneous reduction in the number of abortion clinics are multifaceted but encouraging to those who hope to see human life respected,” writes Randall Wenger.

“What happens in marriage, family life, and religious practice is part of what constitutes a country’s culture. Culture is a manifestation of core beliefs that shape how we live our lives, how we approach duties, and what we expect civil government to do. What John Adams wrote during the American Revolution remains true today: The ‘foundation of national morality must be laid in private families’ and in the associations that people form in civil society. Stronger churches and institutions in civil society dedicated to supporting families in the exercise of their high duties are essential to the perpetuation of our political institutions and to our culture of liberty.”

— Scott Yenor, “Culture and the Challenge of Self-Government”

Section 2: Poverty & Dependence

  • From 2005 to 2015, the number of people living in subsidized housing increased by about 1 million. “While providing assistance to those in need is important, taxpayers should not be required to subsidize rents that they themselves could not afford,” argues Robert Rector.
  • The self-sufficiency rate declined between 2004 and 2014 as the poverty rate increased by 2.1 percentage points. The poverty rate has fluctuated only slightly over the past 50 years. “Welfare is destructive because it pays people not to work, automatically giving them a check or a benefit every month even if they don’t work — and so they don’t,” writes Tarren Bragdon.
  • The labor force participation rate among working-age Americans is at its lowest level since the 1980s. From 2005 to 2015, it fell by 1.9 percentage points. To turn the tide, Jo Kwong discusses “what is working to help more people, especially the unemployed and underemployed, achieve greater employment success.”
  • Over 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage every year. From 2004 to 2014, this number grew by 4.4 percentage points. Children born to married parents are less likely to be poor, explains Kevin Dayaratna: “Policies to eradicate child poverty should thus be aimed at strengthening marriage, reforming our welfare programs that penalize marriage, and improving education.”

“Today, perhaps for the first time in our history, the promise of the American dream is at risk of disappearing. For many Americans, the hope of opportunity is no longer a promise rooted in the nature of our nation’s character, but a neglected dream that now seems unattainable. For those who feel lost in the chaos of a global economy, for those who are stuck in the morass of government regulation and economic stagnancy, we can and we must offer the promise of hope and opportunity.”

— Governor Sam Brownback, “The Promise of Hope and Opportunity”

Section 3: General Opportunity

  • The number of children attending charter schools continues to climb. From 2004 to 2014, charter school enrollment increased by 1.7 million students. “Parental demand for strong educational options is consistently high, and on current trends, the number of students attending charter schools would double in five years,” writes Nina Rees.
  • From 2006 to 2016, the percentage of GDP taxed away by the federal government grew by 0.5 percentage point, to 18.1 percent. Sabrina L. Schaeffer focuses on how tax increases specifically affect women, explaining that they “impinge on their freedom and make it harder for their families to succeed and find fulfillment. This is especially true during a time of anemic economic growth when many families are suffering from stagnant wages and increasing costs of living.”
  • Average student loan debt now stands at $26,888 in 2014 dollars. From 2003 to 2013, the student loan debt held by each year’s graduates with loans increased by $4,011. In addition, federal assistance contributes to higher tuition fees, as Richard Vedder explains.
  • Economic freedom in the U.S. continues to decline. It fell by 5.8 points between 2006 and 2016, according to The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. “[L]ower levels of economic freedom negatively affect several cultural indicators, albeit indirectly,” explains Alejandro Chafuen. “Reliance on the state tends to reduce a sense of personal responsibility and commitment to sustaining and protecting the rule of law.”

“Economic mobility is the defining challenge of our time. Inequality will always be with us, despite the best efforts of French professor Thomas Piketty, who wants to reduce it with a wealth tax. We need to focus not on eliminating inequality — which is impossible — but on making sure that people can move up through the income classes through education and job opportunities.”

— Diana Furchgott-Roth, “Ensuring the Opportunity to Choose a Promising Future”

Summary Observations

Merely material diagnoses miss the point. Whether assessing the nature of poverty in America or the factors related to crime or economic freedom, looking through an exclusively material lens does not give an adequate picture of the problem or yield the best insights about solutions. Human beings are relational, with aspirations beyond the material. Our discussion about opportunity ought to reflect that a job is more than a paycheck. It contributes to a sense of purpose and meaning as individuals put their gifts to use toward productive ends. Economic freedom is not an end in itself: It is a means by which human beings can pursue their full potential.

Trends must be viewed in terms of their human toll. Reading proficiency has barely budged for decades. That is an indictment of status quo education policy, but more significantly, it is a tragedy of unrealized human potential. The same must be said of the lack of improvement in self-sufficiency in the decades since the War on Poverty began in 1965. Meanwhile, the reduction in the number of abortions in recent years is indeed very good news, but it should not distract us from the reality that nearly one million unborn lives are ended each year in the United States. The trends in this Index are about human beings. That should heighten our dissatisfaction with the status quo and catalyze action.

Policy levers are complex, but the principles to guide them are straightforward. The indicators reported here are shaped by many federal, state, and local policies. Sometimes a single policy lever can significantly affect a trend, but in most cases, multiple policies play a role. While the interaction of these policies is complex, the principles that make a positive difference across issues are clear and well-documented. For example, policy should not undermine marriage, family, or religious congregations and other groups formed around common interests or to meet community needs. It should encourage work and make way for economic activity among citizens to flourish.

Perseverance pays off, but distraction derails progress. The decades of sustained effort by the pro-life movement are bearing fruit as research shows demand for abortion and the number of abortion facilities declining. Similarly, more and more students are benefiting from the efforts of educational freedom advocates to open the doors to charter schools and private school choice. But failure to shore up and build on initial successes can result in setbacks, as seen in the negative changes when it comes to keeping teens off of drugs and reforming welfare. Restarting reform after years of heading in the wrong direction is a huge undertaking. Lasting change requires commitment over the long haul from policymakers and citizens.

Policy Implications

Many policies interact to create the conditions that will either encourage or hinder the expansion of opportunity. Policy leadership is required at federal, state, and local levels of government. Policymakers should pursue the following proposals based on the data and commentary presented in this Index:

  • Pursue policy that promotes life, marriage, and religious liberty (p. 20, p. 22, p. 24, p. 32, p. 34).
  • Pursue limited government that encourages personal responsibility and concern for neighbors (p. 36, p. 38).
  • Promote student-centered education choice options (p. 80, p. 82, p. 84).
  • Teach and reinforce, throughout high school, sexual risk avoidance and healthy relationship skills and messages (p. 26, p. 30).
  • Advance comprehensive welfare reform, focusing on restoring self-sufficiency through work and eliminating work disincentives in social safety-net programs (p. 56, p. 58, p. 60,
    p. 62, p. 64, p. 66).
  • Reduce governmental regulations that impede entrepreneurship and the growth of small businesses (p. 94, p. 96, p. 100, p. 102, p. 104).
  • Identify and study effective and successful strategies and approaches (p. 28, p. 49, p. 56,
    p. 62, p. 82, p. 84).
  • Reduce the tax burden on families and individuals to encourage entrepreneurship and economic growth (p. 98, p. 104).

Next Up in the Index:

Introduction by Michael Novak

© 2016 by The Heritage Foundation. All Rights Reserved.



Heritage Foundation
2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity

A think tank devoted to the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.