• Wednesday, September 19, 2012 George Washington University
    The Jefferson Institute and its Patchwork Nation project were front and center at the recent Opportunity Nation summit in Washington DC, as researchers and advocates from across the United States gathered to discuss the economic prospects of people living in different communities in the United States. 
    Patchwork Nation project director Dante Chinni moderated a panel of esteemed economic scholars and community activists in a session called The Limit to America’s Dream: How Geography Impacts Opportunity. 
    Chinni discussed the dramatic differences he had seen in different communities around the country and discussed the particular challenges rural communities seem to have ahead in terms of the global economic environment. “The collapse of small manufacturing means some of these towns don’t have much a future,” he told the crowd.
    The panel and the larger Opportunity Nation summit focused to a great extent on the release of the Opportunity Index, a rating system that looks at economic, educational and cultural indicators at the state and county level. Many of the findings in the index fit closely with what Patchwork Nation has discovered in its work, that there can be vast differences in places that sit next to each other based on localized socio-economic factors.
    At the panel, Dr. Mil Duncan, an expert on rural poverty from the University of New Hampshire, noted that some of the biggest challenges, particularly those dealing with “brain drains” come from sparsely populated areas, where there are increasingly fewer jobs for young educated people. Duncan said her research, like Patchwork Nation, had identified different types of rural communities, all with their different driving issues, but the future looked challenging for all of them.
    Peter Beard, a senior vice president at the United Way, noted that the communities themselves, despite their challenges will likely have to be the drivers of change and that the programs that are going to increase opportunities for people at the local level and likely going to bubble up from local activists.
    Bringing the perspective of someone working to improve economic opportunity at the community level, Aron Goldman, director of the Springfield (MA) Institute, talked about the impacts of reverse migration – that is African Americans moving south after generations of coming north – in his community. The reason, he as ascertained through interviews, is that many African Americans think they have deeper community roots in southern communities thanks to family ties that extend back through generations. 
    The challenge for northern less-dense urban environments like Springfield is to build some of that same socio-economic infrastructure, he said.
    The Jefferson Institute will be working with the Opportunity Index data in the coming months to see how its findings fit with the Patchwork Nation project’s 12-county-type breakdown.