A giant story in The Atlantic:
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.
GARETH COOK AUGUST 2019 ISSUE BUSINESS
Updated at 3:47 p.m. ET on July 17, 2019.
Raj Chetty got his biggest break before his life began.
To be precise, Dr. Chetty appears to have gotten his biggest break nine months before he was born:
His mother, Anbu, grew up in Tamil Nadu, a tropical state at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. Anbu showed the greatest academic potential of her five siblings … In 1962, Anbu married Veerappa Chetty, a brilliant man from Tamil Nadu whose mother and grandmother had sometimes eaten less food so there would be more for him. Anbu became a doctor and supported her husband while he earned a doctorate in economics. 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.
It’s almost as if Raj Chetty had been eugenically bred to be smart and successful. But of course that’s a pseudoscience, so he turned out dumb and unsuccessful:
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.
Oh, wait … Sorry, I was mistaken in where this article was heading. I guess it turned out that with all that high IQ genetic tailwind at his back, Raj Chetty came out okay. Who could have guessed?
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.
As I pointed out in 2013, Chetty had basically, at vast labor, created a map of where blacks and American Indians lived. Why? Because blacks and Native Americans regress toward lower income means than other non-immigrant Americans.
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. …
Now he wants to do more than change our understanding of America—he wants to change America itself.
Uhm … Maybe you should ask American first if they want you to change America?
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.
… 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.”
Well, whaddaya know, it turns out that Dr. Chetty has a whole bunch of cousins, not all of whom are here yet:
… The first time I’d met him, at an economics conference, he had told me he was one of several cousins on his mother’s side who go by Raj, all named after their grandfather, Nadarajan, all with sharp minds and the same long legs and easy gait.
Must be the Magic Dirt in their neighborhoods!
Yet of Nadarajan’s children, only Chetty’s mother graduated from college, and he’s certain that this fact shaped his generation’s possibilities. He was able to come to the United States as a child and attend an elite private school, the University School of Milwaukee. New York Raj—the family appends a location to keep them straight—came to the U.S. later in life, at age 28, worked in drugstores, and then took a series of jobs with the City of New York. Singapore Raj found a job in a temple there that allows him to support his family back in India, but means they must live apart. Karaikudi Raj, named for the town where his mother grew up, committed suicide as a teenager. ..
… “I would likely not be here,” he said, thinking for a moment. “To put it another way: Who are all the people who are not here, who would have been here if they’d had the opportunities? That is a really good question.”
Such as … your cousins?
Charlotte is one of America’s great urban success stories. In the 1970s, it was a modest-size city left behind as the textile industry that had defined North Carolina moved overseas. But in the 1980s, the “Queen City” began to lift itself up. US Airways established a hub at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and the region became a major transportation and distribution center. Bank of America built its headquarters there, and today Charlotte is in a dead heat with San Francisco to be the nation’s second-largest banking center, after New York. New skyscrapers have sprouted downtown, and the city boundary has been expanding, replacing farmland with spacious homes and Whole Foods stores. In the past four decades, Charlotte’s population has nearly tripled.
And then Charlotte got absolutely hammered in 2008. Some of the industries that were quite big in North Carolina before 2008 were home construction, retail banking, mortgage lending, furniture, hardwood lumber, and golf course construction. Then …
Last I checked, Chetty’s base period was 1996-2000, when North Carolina was booming and his post period was 2011-12. Not surprisingly, people who were kids in the Charlotte metro area in the late 1990s weren’t doing that well on average as young adults in 2011-12.
Charlotte has also stood out in Chetty’s research, though not in a good way. In a 2014 analysis of the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Charlotte ranked last in ability to lift up poor children. Only 4.4 percent of Charlotte’s kids moved from the bottom quintile of household income to the top. Kids born into low-income families earned just $26,000 a year, on average, as adults—perched on the poverty line. “It was shocking,” says Brian Collier, an executive vice president of the Foundation for the Carolinas, which is working with Opportunity Insights. “The Charlotte story is that we are a meritocracy, that if you come here and are smart and motivated, you will have every opportunity to achieve greatness.”
But a lot of people who are born in Charlotte aren’t smart and aren’t motivated, even more so than in Chetty’s favorite metro Salt Lake City.
The city’s true story, Chetty’s data showed, is of selective opportunity: All the data-scientist and business-development-analyst jobs in the thriving banking sector are a boon for out-of-towners and the progeny of the well-to-do, but to grow up poor in Charlotte is largely to remain poor.
… In October, Chetty’s institute released an interactive map of the United States called the Opportunity Atlas, revealing the terrain of opportunity down to the level of individual neighborhoods. This, he says, will be his microscope.
… blue for spots like Salt Lake City’s Foothill neighborhood, where upward mobility is strongest.
Raj Chetty has found the motherlode of Magic Dirt!
I had never heard of that neighborhood before so I Googled it. From USA Today:
The Foothill district of Salt Lake City is largely a residential one. Filled with expensive homes and winding lanes, this is one of the valley’s ritzier neighborhoods.
And from a real estate website:
This small, primarily owner-occupied residential area offers windy lanes and beautiful homes. Houses range from the upper mid-range to extravagant in this attractive area at the base of the Wasatch Range. Most of the homes in this area offer plenty of space, fantastic views, privacy, and the area has the lowest crime rate in the city. It is primarily a car-oriented community with about a fifteen-minute commute to the city center, but you can grab the Salt Lake City Central Station train and arrive downtown in about forty-five minutes. This affluent neighborhood has easy access to elementary, middle, and high schools, so it’s a great place to raise a family. … The Foothill neighborhood suits people who want a safe community, and a substantial, stylish home and a good view.
So, Chetty’s breakthrough is that … the children of affluent Mormons tend to do pretty well in life!
Back to The Atlantic:
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. These 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.
Personally, I don’t see interesting idiosyncrasies in Chetty’s latest map when I look at places I know well. For example, Chetty’s go-to example in 2018 was that Compton south of Los Angeles is a great place for blacks to grow up. (You’ve been lied to by your NWA albums!) I don’t much see it on his own map, though. By this point, I would imagine, a sizable fraction of the blacks still living in rapidly Hispanicizing Compton are Compton city employees, such as the mayor, who pay themselves quite nicely, but I’m not sure what vast lesson about Magic Dirt to draw from that.
When I look at Chetty’s maps for the San Fernando Valley, where I live, yeah it’s basically a map of census tracts that are mostly nice single family homes versus census tracts that are more dumpy apartments. I don’t see anything amazing.
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: a method for diagnosing the particular weaknesses of a place and prescribing a set of treatments. This could transform neighborhoods, and restore the American dream from the ground up.
I sure hope this works, because I seem to be just about the only analyst in the country who is systemically critiquing Chetty’s claims. The really influential people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg just seem to be inclined to hope Chetty knows what he’s doing because nobody seems to want to hear any skeptical analysis of his arguments.
… Yet in Charlotte, where Opportunity Insights hopes to build its proof of concept, the atlas reveals swaths of bleak uniformity. Looking at the city, you first see a large bluish wedge south of downtown, with Providence Road on one side and South Boulevard on the other, encompassing the mostly white, mostly affluent areas where children generally grow up to do well. Surrounding the wedge is a broad expanse in hues of red that locals call “the crescent,” made up of predominantly black neighborhoods where the prospects for poor children are pretty miserable.
Clearly, they live atop Tragic Dirt.
The most significant challenge Chetty faces is the force of history.
But not the force of evolution.
In the 1930s, redlining …
I was waiting for “redlining” to appear.
… Does a professor from Harvard, even one as influential and well funded as Chetty, truly stand any chance of bending the American story line?
Chetty is sounding ever more megalomaniacal.
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.
As are maps of where blacks live today.
In 2003, after earning his doctorate, Chetty moved to UC Berkeley for his first job. He was, at the time, the only person in his immediate family—his parents and two older sisters, both biomedical researchers—who had not published a paper.
This author is just trolling his readers by repeatedly mentioning the Chetty family’s high IQ genes, seeing if anybody will ever notice.
Both of Chetty’s parents descend from the Chettiar caste, a mercantile group historically involved in banking, and the kids were raised to carry on their cultural heritage. They learned Tamil in addition to Hindi. Chetty’s sisters married men with Chettiar backgrounds. Chetty rejects the caste system, though he first met his wife, Sundari, after one of his sisters got to know her through the Chettiar community. (Sundari is a stem-cell biologist.)
Chetty rejects the caste system, but happens to have married a stem-cell biologist from the same caste.
… Opportunity is not the same as affluence. Consider a kid who grows up in a household earning about $27,000 annually, right at the 25th percentile nationally. In Beverly Woods, a relatively wealthy, mostly white enclave in South Charlotte with spacious, well-kept yards, he could expect his household income to be $42,900 by age 35. Yet in Huntersville, an attractive northern suburb with nearly the same average household income as Beverly Woods, a similar kid could expect only $24,800—a stark difference, invisible to a passing driver.
It’s kind of baked in to home prices: Zillow says the median home price in Beverly Woods is $462k to $307k for Huntersville.
This dynamic also functions in poorer areas. For a child in Reid Park, an African American neighborhood on the west side of Charlotte, near the airport—a place that has struggled to recover from a crime epidemic in the 1980s—the expected household income at age 35 is a dismal $17,800, on average. But in East Forest, a white, working-class neighborhood in southeast Charlotte, the expected future income jumps to $32,600.
Uh, I think you answered your own question there.
Zillow says the median home price in East Forest is $223k, while in Reid Park it is, and I quote, “none.”
There are places like East Forest in cities around the country.
Uh … working classes neighborhoods that have managed to stay white?
Chetty and his team have taken to calling them “opportunity bargains”: places with relatively affordable rents that punch above their weight with respect to opportunity. He doesn’t yet know why some places are opportunity bargains
Cuz they are white?
, but he considers the discovery of these neighborhoods to be a breakthrough. John Friedman told me that if the government had been able to move families to opportunity-bargain neighborhoods in the original Moving to Opportunity experiment—places selected for higher opportunity, not lower poverty—the children’s earnings improvements would have been more than twice as great.
Okay, so here’s The Plan: let’s use the power of Big Data to hunt down the last white working class neighborhoods in urban America, then move blacks from the Tragic Dirt of inner city slums to the Magic Dirt of white working class neighborhoods.
Then, in the natural course of events, upper middle whites can gentrify the former black slums in convenient locations and make a bundle! It’s a Win-Win proposition (well, except for the white working classes).
Basically, Chetty has come up with amazingly great data, little of which says much that America’s Great and Good want to hear.