Raj Chetty Believes His New Harvard Institute Will Re-Energize the American Dream

Raj Chetty, the superstar, big-data economist, has returned to Harvard from Stanford to establish his own Opportunity Insights research and policy institute, a project seeded with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Chetty’s research has created an Opportunity Atlas, which maps neighborhoods of opportunity and other neighborhoods where children are unable to move up the economic ladder.

In an objective and suitably skeptical profile for The Atlantic, Gareth Cook explores the goal of Chetty’s project: “Dozens of the nation’s elite colleges have more children of the 1 percent than from families in the bottom 60 percent of family income. A black boy born to a wealthy family is more than twice as likely to end up poor as a white boy from a wealthy family. Chetty has established Big Data as a moral force in the American debate. Now he wants to do more than change our understanding of America—he wants to change America itself. His new Harvard-based institute, called Opportunity Insights, is explicitly aimed at applying his findings in cities around the country and demonstrating that social scientists, despite a discouraging track record, are able to fix the problems they articulate in journals.”

How does Chetty envision his project will work? “The Opportunity Atlas has a fractal quality. Some regions of the United States look better than high-mobility countries such as Denmark, while others look more like a developing country.  The Great Plains unfurl as a sea of blue, and then the eye is caught by an island of red—a mark of the miseries inflicted on the Oglala Lakota by European settlers. The stark differences recapitulate themselves on smaller and smaller scales as you zoom in. It’s common to see opposite extremes of opportunity within easy walking distance of each other, even in two neighborhoods that long-term residents would consider quite similar. To find a cure for what ails America, Chetty will need to understand all of this wild variation.  Which factors foster opportunity, and which impede it?  The next step will be to find local interventions that can address these factors—and to prove, with experimental trials, that the interventions work. The end goal is the social equivalent of precision medicine…. This could transform neighborhoods, and restore the American dream from the ground up.”

It seems to me Gareth Cook poses some of the right questions about the workability of what is a wonderfully optimistic scheme: “The most significant challenge Chetty faces is the force of history… Does a professor from Harvard, even one as influential and well funded as Chetty, truly stand any chance of bending the American story line?  On his national atlas, the most obvious feature is an ugly red gash that starts in Virginia, curls down through the Southeast’s coastal states—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama—then marches west toward the Mississippi River, where it turns northward before petering out in western Tennessee.  When I saw this, I was reminded of another map: one President Abraham Lincoln consulted in 1861, demarcating the counties with the most slaves. The two maps are remarkably similar.  Set the documents side by side, and it may be hard to believe that they are separated in time by more than a century and a half, or that one is a rough consensus of men and women kept in bondage at the time of the Civil War, and the other is a computer-generated glimpse of our children’s future.”

Cook dubs Chetty a technocrat who has identified factors that promote social mobility: “The high-opportunity places… tend to share five qualities: good schools, greater levels of social cohesion, many two-parent families, low levels of income inequality, and little residential segregation, by either class or race. The list is suggestive, but hard to interpret.  For example, the strongest correlation is the number of intact families. The explanation seems obvious: A second parent usually means higher family income as well as more stability, a broader social network, additional emotional support, and many other intangibles. Yet children’s upward mobility was strongly correlated with two-parent families only in the neighborhood, not necessarily in their home…  What is cause, what is effect, and what are we missing?  Chetty’s microscope has revealed a new world, not what animates it—or how to change it.”

Please do read The Economist Who Would Fix the American Dream, a fascinating profile of a project aimed at reanimating social mobility.

After considering Cook’s profile, however, I am wondering about some of the deeper problems underneath Chetty’s map.  Does Chetty know how to address the racism underneath the national map—and the same racism which also appears across the finite neighborhoods of our racially segregated cities and suburbs?  What about the rapidly growing residential segregation by income across America’s metropolitan areas, a trend that Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has brought to our attention?

For me, the biggest concern is this: Chetty believes that if he can identify specific factors that undermine social mobility across generations, and if he can experimentally prove ways to address those factors, his work will stimulate growing political will for our society to invest in such solutions on a scale that will make a difference.

Many of the factors he has identified so far are already well known—documented for decades by academic sociologists. Today, however, as a society we have chosen not to invest in a mass of policies which we know would ameliorate child poverty, the primary factor long-demonstrated to undermine educational attainment. Raising the minimum wage would, for example, be a simple step.  Instead we have chosen to frame the problem as the result of failure by public schools to raise test scores—a punitive philosophy that involves far less public investment.  We have even removed children from the discussion and made it a dry debate about cut scores and proficiency statistics.

As I read about the goals of the Opportunity Insights institute, I wonder if Chetty imagines the collapse of public will is really only a matter of Americans believing there is no point in trying because the problems seem hopeless. Chetty seems to believe that if his Opportunity Insights lab can prove there are workable solutions in the neighborhoods where his atlas shows the absence of opportunity, Americans will jump right in to do the right thing.  I hope so.  But I am skeptical.

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Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

Last fall, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, published The Making of Ferguson in the American Prospect.  Now after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Rothstein has posted a new summary of government policies that have, over the past century, created tragic conditions in America’s big cities, the kind of conditions that lead to rioting as an expression of widespread anger and despair.

In From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation, Rothstein writes, “Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on.  These are all good, necessary, and important things to do.  But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.”

Rothstein quotes from the report of the 1968 Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the deeper causes of rioting that arose from protests, again in the context of police brutality.  The Kerner Commission concluded that, “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  Rothstein, however, is more specific, attributing the concentrated poverty, segregation and inequality apparent across America’s big cities to government policies, not an accidental convergence of private choices.  The fact that such policies have been systemic is why we are seeing angry protests and rioting in so many places.  “When the Kerner Commission blamed ‘white society’ and ‘white institutions,’ it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time.  It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished and separately from whites.  Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.”

In his examination of Baltimore, Rothstein cites formal policies going back to 1910, policies that have included building and health regulations combined with government sanctioned policies of real estate companies, the adoption of restrictive protective covenants that specified who could not purchase homes in particular neighborhoods, the barring of African Americans from qualification for Federal Housing Administration loans, insurance redlining practices, the implications of punitive contract home sales for African Americans, and most recently the targeting of African American buyers by those marketing subprime loans, a practice that has led to much higher rates of foreclosures in black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland.  For all these reasons that have made it harder for blacks to purchase homes—the primary asset by which families build long term equity—Rothstein reports that today “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth.”

So what does all this have to do with public education, the subject of this blog?  Just this week Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren released a study (not yet published at a site which can be linked) that re-analyzed older data that had seemed to show that moving away from segregated and highly impoverished neighborhoods did not make a difference for children’s life chances.  The new report documents—in dry academic language—that the places children grow up deeply affect their lifetime prospects and that if their families can move away from deeply impacted communities, children do better, especially if they move away when they are young.  “Overall, these results suggest that neighborhoods matter for children’s long-term outcomes and suggest that at least half of the variance in observed intergenerational mobility across areas is due to the causal effect of place.” “Urban areas, particularly those with substantial concentrated poverty, typically generate much worse outcomes for children than suburbs and rural areas…. We also find that areas with a larger African-American population tend to have lower rates of upward mobility.  These spatial differences amply racial inequality across generations….”

While we like to think that the Civil Rights Movement addressed our racial inequalities by eliminating de jure segregation across the South, Thomas Sugrue, the historian from the University of Pennsylvania, has explored what racial injustice looks like in today’s America:  “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest.  A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools.  The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South.  Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city, where the faces in welfare offices, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, and jails are disproportionately black.” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. xix) “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference.  It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined….” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. 540)

When he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February, Richard Rothstein explained one of the new ways the segregation of institutions is being perpetuated these days—again by state governments, this time copying Jeb Bush’s Florida system of assigning letter grades for schools and school districts,  grades of ‘A’ through ‘F.’  The fact that the state school ratings track all the issues described by Rothstein, Chetty and Hendren, and Sugrue is never named.  The grades are said to describe the quality of the schools, but the conditions faced by the children and the teachers are overlooked. Here is what Rothstein told the Cleveland audience:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools.  And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools.  Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that.  And so if you label schools with ‘A-F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A-F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

Blaming the Poor… Again

You may have noticed David Brooks’ recent column in the NY Times on The Nature of Poverty.  Brooks is one of those conservatives who prefer to blame the problems of the poor on their character and their culture.  Fortunately the NY Times also employs a more knowledgeable columnist, the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, who quite regularly corrects the mistakes of David Brooks.  In yesterday’s paper, Krugman undertook to do that in an excellent column, Race, Class and Neglect.

Racism is, of course, wound into this discussion, and Krugman cites Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who explained, “that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities.  His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.”  Krugman continues: “And so it has proved.  Lagging wages—actually declining in real terms for half of working men—and work instability have been followed by sharp declines in marriage, rising births out of wedlock, and more,” across all racial groups.  Krugman notes a stunning statistic, that among our poorest citizens of all racial groups, life expectancy rates are actually falling in America, although Krugman points out that the statistics are particularly stark for black Americans: “Many people have pointed out that there are a number of black neighborhoods in Baltimore where life expectancy compares unfavorably with impoverished Third World nations.”  He continues: “In fact, much, though by no means all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.”

Krugman directs significant criticism to statements in David Brooks’ recent column: “So it is… disheartening… to see commentators suggesting that the poor are causing their own poverty, and could easily escape if only they acted like members of the upper middle class.  And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail (because of values, you see.)  In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries.  That’s not a lot of money—it’s far less than other advanced countries spend—and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.”

Yesterday’s NY Times also featured a report on new research being released by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, a study that demonstrates that children who move away from extremely poor neighborhoods do better in life, especially if they move when they are young.  Chetty and Hendren’s study confirms the impact of the racial and economic segregation of a child’s neighborhood on the child’s life chances: “The places where poor children face the worst odds include some—but not all—of the nation’s largest urban areas…. Many of these places have large African-American populations and the findings suggest that race plays an enormous but complex role in upward mobility….”

What about the places that seem to offer greater opportunities?  “These places tend to share several traits, Mr. Hendren said.  They have elementary schools with higher test scores, a higher share of two-parent families, greater levels of involvement in civic and religious groups and more residential integration of affluent, middle-class and poor families.”

I have read only the NY Times story by David Leonhardt about Chetty and Hendren’s study; I’ve not read the study.  In the NY Times piece, however, there is an assumption that mirrors the tendency in David Brooks’ recent column blaming poverty on the poor.  Leonhardt’s story quotes Hendren in a way that seems to blame the public schools in the communities from which the report’s authors encourage families to move away.  We prefer to blame somebody after all, and if we can’t blame the poor, maybe we should blame the schools that serve the poor or maybe blame the teachers.

Chetty and Hendren are economists. I think it is wise, as one tries to understand the many factors affecting groups of people, to look at the sociological research as well.  And there is a large and deepening body of sociological literature that speaks to the convergence of poverty and struggling schools.  What sociologists are telling us is that extreme segregation by income overlaid on racial segregation affects not only the children but also the schools to which they bring the challenges of extreme poverty.

In a 2010 study of schools in Chicago, Anthony Bryk and his colleagues identified what they called “a previously unrecognized subclass” of schools—those they called “truly disadvantaged.”  Here are the characteristics of the 46 schools they identified in Chicago that were far more severely challenged than surrounding schools (many of which served relatively poor neighborhoods). Truly disadvantaged schools were 90-100 percent African American. “These schools served neighborhoods characterized by extreme rates of poverty.  On average, 70 percent of residents living in the neighborhoods around these 46 schools had incomes below the poverty line, and the median family income in 1990 was only $9,480.  In 6 out of 10 of these schools, more than 50 percent of the students lived in pubic housing.” The schools featured what the researchers call a “consolidation of socioeconomic disadvantage and racial segregation.”  “Many confronted an extraordinary concentration of student needs, including students who were homeless, in foster care, or living in contexts of neglect, abuse, and domestic violence.” (Organizing Schools for Improvement, pp 23-24)

Sean Reardon’s research at Stanford University helps explain what is happening.  Reardon documents that across America’s metropolitan areas the proportion of families living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

In his recent book, Robert Putnam adds an important factor that affects children’s prospects and the sense of hope or despair that is likely to pervade their schools: the widening disparity in family assets. “Growing inequality in accumulated wealth is particularly marked…. Even taking into account the losses of the Great Recession, the net worth of college-educated American households with children rose by 47 percent between 1989 and 2013, whereas among high school-educated households, net worth actually fell by 17 percent during that quarter century.  Parental wealth is especially important for social mobility because it can provide informal insurance that allows kids to take more risks in search of more reward.” (Our Kids, 36)

David Brooks’ assumption is that poor people ought to pull themselves up, and as Leonhardt describes the Chetty-Hendren study, the assumption is that poor people ought to get it together for the sake of their children and find a way to move away from the schools No Child Left Behind has caused us to brand as “failing schools.”  Maybe that leaves the rest of us feeling less guilty, but it doesn’t really provide any way to address one of our society’s most troubling trends: rapidly growing income inequality across America and growing segregation by race and income that affects not only families but also the schools their children attend.  Here are just a few of the ways we could begin to address parts of this problem: more full-time work, a living wage, the significant construction of mixed-income housing across our city and suburban neighborhoods with far more subsidized units included for low-income families, and finally some sort of honest grappling with the fact that our society spends far less public funds for the schools in low income communities than in places that are wealthy.

Instead of taking steps to address poverty and inequality, we too often blame the poor or their schools or their teachers. Our collective failure to act is not only a policy problem but also a moral failure.  We are not the good society we like to imagine ourselves to be.