The Atlantic (Aug. 2019), The Economist Who Would Fix the American Dream:
No one has done more to dispel the myth of social mobility than Raj Chetty. But he has a plan to make equality of opportunity a reality.
By 1979, when Raj was born in New Delhi, his mother was a pediatrics professor and his father was an economics professor who had served as an adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
When Chetty was 9, his family moved to the United States, and he began a climb nearly as dramatic as that of his parents. He was the valedictorian of his high-school class, then graduated in just three years from Harvard University, where he went on to earn a doctorate in economics and, at age 28, was among the youngest faculty members in the university’s history to be offered tenure. In 2012, he was awarded the MacArthur genius grant. The following year, he was given the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to the most promising economist under 40. (He was 33 at the time.) In 2015, Stanford University hired him away. Last summer, Harvard lured him back to launch his own research and policy institute, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Chetty turns 40 this month, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential social scientists of his generation. “The question with Raj,” says Harvard’s Edward Glaeser, one of the country’s leading urban economists, “is not if he will win a Nobel Prize, but when.”
The work that has brought Chetty such fame is an echo of his family’s history. He has pioneered an approach that uses newly available sources of government data to show how American families fare across generations, revealing striking patterns of upward mobility and stagnation. In one early study, he showed that children born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of earning more than their parents, but for children born four decades later, that chance had fallen to 50 percent, a toss of a coin.
In 2013, Chetty released a colorful map of the United States, showing the surprising degree to which people’s financial prospects depend on where they happen to grow up. In Salt Lake City, a person born to a family in the bottom fifth of household income had a 10.8 percent chance of reaching the top fifth. In Milwaukee, the odds were less than half that.
Since then, each of his studies has become a front-page media event (“Chetty bombs,” one collaborator calls them) that combines awe—millions of data points, vivid infographics, a countrywide lens—with shock. This may not be the America you’d like to imagine, the statistics testify, but it’s what we’ve allowed America to become. 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. His staff includes an eight-person policy team, which is building partnerships with Charlotte, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, and other cities.
For a man who has done so much to document the country’s failings, Chetty is curiously optimistic. He has the confidence of a scientist: If a phenomenon like upward mobility can be measured with enough precision, then it can be understood; if it can be understood, then it can be manipulated. “The big-picture goal,” Chetty told me, “is to revive the American dream.” ...
Chetty’s pitch to the nation is that our problems have technocratic solutions, but at times I sense that he is avoiding an argument. Surely our neighborhoods can be improved, and those improvements can help the next generation achieve better outcomes. But what of the larger forces driving the enormous disparities in American wealth? Poor people would be better off if their children had better prospects, but also if they had more money—if the fruits of our society were shared more broadly. “I can take money from you and give it to me, and maybe that is good and maybe it is not,” he said. “I feel like there are a lot of people working on redistribution, and it is hard to figure out the right answer there.” To focus on the question of who gets what is also, of course, politically incendiary.
Chetty believes there is more progress to be made through a moral framing that is less partisan. “There are so many kids out there who could be doing so many great things, both for themselves and for the world,” he said. Chetty’s challenge to the system is measured and empirical; it’s one that billionaires and corporations can happily endorse. But his stance is also a simple matter of personality: Chetty is no agitator. He told me, “I like to find solutions that please everyone in the room, and this definitely has that feel.” ...
Chetty told me that his interest in poverty dates back to the horrifying want he observed on the streets of New Delhi. But only when he built the first version of his atlas did he see what he should do about it. “I realized,” he said, “we could have the biggest impact on poverty by focusing on children.”
Chetty thinks about revolution like an economist does: as a compounding accumulation of marginal changes. Bump the interest rate on your savings account by one notch, and 30 years later, your balance is much improved. Move a family to a better zip code, or foster the right conditions in that family’s current neighborhood, and their children will do better; do that a thousand times, or ten thousand, and the American dream can be more possible, for more people, than it is today.
In the 1930s, the poet Langston Hughes published what remains one of the most honest descriptions of that dream:
A dream so strong, so brave, so true
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become
The poem, though, is laced with a counterpoint of protest: “America was never America to me”—not to the “man who never got ahead”; “the poorest worker bartered through the years”; or “the Negro, servant to you all.” Still, for all its outrage, the poem ends with a paradoxical yearning: “O, let America be America again,” Hughes wrote. “The land that never has been yet.”
Hearing stories of the American dream as a boy in New Delhi, Chetty adopted the faith. When he became a scientist, he discerned the truth. What remains is contradiction: We must believe in the dream and we must accept that it is false—then, perhaps, we will be capable of building a land where it will yet be true.