Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Atlas
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Jordan Tidey, Senior Consultant
Every so often a concept comes along that immediately grabs our attention. For some it may have been the launch of Uber, or maybe the possibilities resulting from 3D printing. Raj Chetty’s work with social mobility data and, especially, the Opportunity Atlas, currently has my attention.
The Opportunity Atlas (https://www.opportunityatlas.org/) is a self-described initial release of social mobility data stemming from a collaboration between researchers at the U.S. Census Bureau, Harvard University, and Brown University. Raj Chetty is the Director of Opportunity Insights, his own veritable playground at Harvard University where he can further explore his research and spread his work. Its stated mission is “to develop scalable policy solutions that will empower families throughout the United States to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes”. Inspiring stuff, but I imagine far from daunting for the 40-year old Chetty. He’s a Harvard grad with a doctorate in economics and a former recipient of the MacArthur genius grant and the John Bates Clark Medal (awarded by the American Economic Association for significant contribution by an economist under forty). He’s also a man with a seemingly insatiable thirst for data that informs the development of solutions to today’s most pressing social problems.
His recent work has been using data to track outcomes of children in different neighbourhoods across the US. The interactive mapping provided by the Opportunity Atlas reveals that some have high earning outcomes, while others have been unable to build wealth. Chetty’s team and their collaborators are posing important questions, asking things like “why are some neighbourhoods doing better than others?” and pointing us to factors ranging from income and education to safety, type of housing, and the makeup of families. Previously available data didn’t allow for this level of applied scrutiny or granular analysis. And it didn’t reveal the story Chetty was looking for.
From the Opportunity Atlas website:
Traditional measures of poverty and neighborhood conditions provide snapshots of income and other variables for residents in an area at a given point in time. But to study how economic opportunity varies across neighborhoods, we really need to follow people over many years and see how one’s outcomes depend upon family circumstances and where on grew up. The Opportunity Atlas is the first dataset that provides such longitudinal information at a detailed neighborhood level. Using the Atlas, you can see not just where the rich and poor currently live – which was possible in previously available data from the Census Bureau – but whether children in a given area tend to grow up to become rich or poor. This focus on mobility out of poverty across generations allows us to trace the roots of outcomes such as poverty and incarceration back to where kids grew up, potentially permitting much more effective interventions.
Whether examining segregation in housing or protecting privacy in the course of conducting research, Chetty and his colleagues are setting a high bar in their work. And I am keen to see where their continued application of mapped data and the analysis of policy takes them.
One of Opportunity Insights’ most recent blog posts talked about the Marginal Value of Public Funds, or MVPF. It reported conclusions from their research into historical policy changes over the last 50 years in the U.S., including their insight that investing in health and education for low-income children nets the highest return and often pays for itself. They’re asking good questions and pursuing the answers with investigative rigor.
In the August 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Gareth Cook (The Economist Who Would Fix the American Dream) said “Chetty has established Big Data as a moral force in the American debate” and now is looking at Facebook data for connections between our social networks and opportunity. We’ll all have to stay tuned.
Jordan Tidey is a Senior Consultant at MDB Insight. To learn more about Jordan and the rest of our team, go to https://mdbinsight.com/team-bios/
Hendren, N., Sprung-Keyser, B. A Unified Welfare Analysis of Government Policies, Working Paper, July 2019 (https://opportunityinsights.org/paper/welfare/)