What is a Fragile Community?

The Center for Advancing Opportunity (CAO) is committed to listening to and helping fragile communities. But what exactly is a fragile community?

CAO defines a fragile community as a rural or urban community where residents — no matter their race, religion or ethnicity — face significant barriers to opportunity.

Barriers include high crime, a lack of quality educational options, and severely limited upward economic and social mobility.

People are not born fragile, but too many are born into situations that make it difficult to overcome adversity. Yet all want better for themselves and their families

CAO’s 2020 State of Opportunity in America Report conducted with Gallup helps to answer the question “What is a fragile community?”

Fragile Community arial view

Economic Status and Mobility

  • Fragile community residents are almost twice as likely as U.S. adults overall to have annual household incomes under $35,000.
  • In 2019, more than a third of fragile community residents said they were finding it “difficult” or “very difficult” to live on their current income.
  • Fragile community residents are twice as likely as U.S. adults overall to say there have been times in the past year when they have not had enough money to buy food for themselves or their families.
  • About 4 in 10 fragile community residents said the biggest barrier to improved financial situations is a lack of jobs that provide career advancement opportunities.


  • One in 10 fragile community residents have a bachelor’s degree or more compared with one in three U.S. adults overall.
  • Only 8% of fragile community residents were “extremely satisfied” with the quality of K-12 schools in their area.
  • Just 28% of fragile community residents said they “strongly agree” or “agree” that all people in their area have access to an affordable college education if they want it, yet 87% of Black and 88% of Hispanic fragile community residents think a college education is important or very important.

Criminal Justice

  • In 2019, 60% of Black fragile community residents said they know “some” or “a lot” of people who were treated unfairly by the police, compared with 31% of White residents and 39% of Hispanic residents in fragile communities.
  • About half of Black fragile community residents (49%) said they know “some” or “a lot“ of people who were unfairly sent to jail, compared with less than a quarter of White (19%) or Hispanic (23%) fragile community residents.


  • In 2019, one-third of fragile community residents described their health as fair or poor.
  • 58% percent of fragile community residents said in 2019 they were satisfied with the availability of quality healthcare in their area, compared with 74% of Americans overall.

Chronic health conditions are more common in fragile communities. People living in such areas are more likely than Americans in general to say they have diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol – all of which put them at risk for severe illness if they are infected by COVID-19.

Fragile community residents also have been more likely to face harsh economic consequences related to the pandemic and the response to it. They disproportionately work in the service sector or the gig economy, and they are more vulnerable to job or income loss from stay-at-home orders. Those who kept working were less likely to have jobs that allowed them to work from home, forcing a painful choice between providing for their families or risking exposure to the virus.

Financial hardship leads to increased anxiety, which takes a physical toll over time, and has been shown to increase the risk of chronic diseases.

Pessimism about economic conditions and a lack of opportunities can be debilitating. Recent years have seen a rise in “deaths of despair” in the U.S. – i.e. deaths from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide – which reflect a sense of hopelessness in fragile communities. This dynamic – including high rates of depression – make fragile community residents more vulnerable to the psychological fallout related to the economic impact of the pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated many of these.

Additionally, in many low-income communities, high-quality fresh food and parks, sidewalks and other environmental factors conducive to physical activity and a healthy lifestyle are not as readily available as in other communities.

What Does CAO Do to Help Fragile Communities?

CAO’s mission is to move people living in fragile communities from promise to prosperity.
We accomplish this by:

  • Listening to their aspirations, fears, and recommendations
  • Supporting researchers who are best-positioned to explore communities’ most pressing issues
  • Using their findings to inform public, private, and community-based solutions.

As part of our effort, we support three research centers at historically Black colleges and universities (HCBUs) which educate low-income, first-generation and academically underserved college students, many of whom come from fragile communities. CAO-supported centers are:

The Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) at Winston-Salem State University aims to better understand how to remove barriers to economic and social development and upward mobility at the local level.

The Center for Educational Opportunity (CEO) at Albany State University finds ways, through research, to discover and uncover educational models, accessibility practices, innovations, and opportunities that can be operationalized, sustained, and shared in communities with the greatest need.

The Center for Justice Reform (CJR) at Texas Southern University develops and disseminates interdisciplinary criminal justice research to dismantle barriers faced by American citizens in fragile communities.

The Center for Advancing Opportunity believes the best way to advance opportunity is by listening to people in search of it, and equip them with the intellectual and financial capital to create solutions. We are working to identify and study barriers to opportunity for those living in fragile communities, to make opportunity available to everyone.