From its beginnings, Las Vegas has been a city of opportunity. People and businesses have come here looking for a better life — for themselves, their children and their employees. It’s a city that has passionately embraced the premise and promise of the American dream, a term coined by writer James Truslow Adams in 1931, in which “each man and each woman shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they are capable … regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
In the aftershock of the Great Recession and growing globalization, people have questioned whether Las Vegas still holds promise as a city of opportunity, a place where children are likely to do better than their parents. Despite the tremendous economic and social losses that we experienced as a community, Las Vegas is ardently resilient. In a 2014 study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty (“Where is the Land of Opportunity?”), Las Vegas, in terms of upward mobility and opportunity, ranked near the middle at 31 (between Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago) in the 50 largest regions studied. The real-life implications concerning upward mobility between low-scoring regions and high-scoring regions were significant. For example, children of low-income parents living in San Jose, Calif. (No. 1), were roughly three times more likely than children living in Charlotte, N.C. (No. 50), to reach the top fifth of the income distribution as adults. Place does matter.
As part of the study, Chetty and his team identified five factors strongly correlated with upward mobility across regions. Cities experience greater mobility when they have “less residential segregation, less income inequality, better primary schools, greater social capital, and greater family stability.” A more recent report jointly authored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution (“Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security”) arrived at similar findings: Greater mobility and opportunity are a function of three closely intertwined factors: family composition, work, and educational attainment and achievement.
For the Las Vegas area to continue to be a place of opportunity, it must continue to reinvent itself in ways perhaps fundamentally different from previous eras. The Great Recession exposed our economic vulnerabilities in a harsh light and, as a result, we’ve committed to a more holistic, integrated approach to building a stable economy. Much work already has been done along these lines, including the recently enacted K-12 reforms.
One area in which reinvention is taking center stage is education.
Transforming our education system presents an opportunity for (indeed, it must happen in concert with) our collective capacity to broaden and deepen our community’s social capital. This type of capital — our personal and professional networks and relationships, coupled with our willingness to freely share them — may be the most important factor in our ongoing efforts to enhance opportunity for our children and Las Vegas.
Spencer Stewart is chancellor of Western Governors University.