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.