Statistician on a mission to end inequality in the U.S. finds the answer in 'fathers,' 'intact families' and 'social capital'

The Atlantic features a marvelous and compelling profile of an Indian-American economist and statistician, Raj Chetty, on a mission to end inequality in the U.S.

It's a long, long read, and this being The Atlantic, I expected this would be another profile of one of the gee-whiz, Obama-era hipsterly types, the kind who came up with the theory of the "nudge" to entice low-information voters to choose socialist things on store shelves, or else one of those Democratic Party language manipulators such as this guy. Another Obama wiz-bang, whiz-kid. Even more suggestive of the trend, the guy comes from south India, the Tamil-Nadu part, which is a very socialist part (not far from Kamala Harris's family's part, which gives you the flavor) and from a broader culture that places more value in collecting degrees and obtaining do-nothing government satrapies than actually producing things of value. Not a promising start. Less promising still, he was the kind of guy who got a lot of awards from the Ford Foundation types and academia, pillars of the far-left establishment as their fair-haired boy, so I wasn't optimistic -- here's his string of honors described by The Atlantic:

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 notif he will win a Nobel Prize, but when.”

 When you see that kind of stuff, you know we must be talking about a leftwinger. It figures.

So how would this guy know or understand anything about the vast United States including its red states, even as someone who immigrated here at the young age of nine? The very premise of going on a mission to end inequality in the states is pretty left-wing to start with, given that most leftists view government programs to manipulate results as the simple answer, and as with all socialist top-down programs, they always fail spectacularly. Conservatives have known for years that the only equality worth a damn is equality of opportunity, and that's how you get social upward mobility.

But this fellow actually does seem interested in results, not the appearance of results which satisfy progressives, and for that, he really did seem to be trying to look for answers from the equality-of-opportunity side, asking why upward mobility was so limited in some areas and not others, and going down to very basic neighborhood levels, as if looking through a microscope, which eliminate sweeping generalizations about states.

To help cities like Charlotte, Chetty takes inspiration from medicine. For thousands of years, he explained, little progress was made in understanding disease, until technologies like the microscope gave scientists novel ways to understand biology, and thus the pathologies that make people ill. 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.

Drawing on anonymized government data over a three-decade span, the researchers linked children to the parents who claimed them as dependents. The atlas then followed poor kids from every census tract in the country, showing how much they went on to earn as adults. The colors on the atlas reveal a generation’s prospects: red for areas where kids fared the worst; shades of orange, yellow, and green for middling locales; and blue for spots like Salt Lake City’s Foothill neighborhood, where upward mobility is strongest. It can also track children born into higher income brackets, compare results by race and gender, and zoom out to show states, regions, or the country as a whole.

He seems to be an honest researcher, and thus far, he said he hasn't gotten the answer he's wanted about social mobility from either statistics or economics. However, because he seems interested in actually finding the truth of the matter, his research has led him to an interesting place:

For all he’s learned about where opportunity resides in America, Chetty knows surprisingly little about what makes one place better than another. He and Hendren have gathered a range of social-science data sets and looked for correlations to the atlas. The high-opportunity places, they’ve found, 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. There are so many things the data might be trying to say. Maybe fathers in a neighborhood serve as mentors and role models? Or maybe there is no causal connection at all. Perhaps, for example, places with strong church communities help kids while also fostering strong marriages. The same kinds of questions flow from every correlation; each one may mean many things. What is cause, what is effect, and what are we missing? Chetty’s microscope has revealed a new world, but not what animates it—or how to change it.

Did I just read that right? Two-parent families? Father figures? Social capital? Seems that the only places where kids rise in the world, at least reliably, are those places. Even kids who don't have intact families do well if they live in neighborhoods where most kids do.

Conservatives have been arguing these ideas for years, much to the derision of leftists, who insist that any effort to encourage family formation or respect life, or support family life, or respect peoples of faith is nothing more than Christian fundamentalist oppression. We've always been the bad guys for saying this and sure enough, all along, we've held the key to upward mobility and real opportunity as best this statistician can find. Leftists, by contrast, strive hard to replace any of that  - families, father, people trusting each other -- with legalistic meddlings along with elected and unelected state power as substitutes.

I didn't find the gee-whiz Obama-style hipsterism I had expected to find in this article, which was the only reason I read it to the end. Now you can bet some Democrats (starting with Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg according to one guy on Twitter) are going to try to expropriate these findings and tailor them to some new state intervention, claiming it all as their own. But the hurtling conclusion is going to thwart them. Family formation. Fathers. Two-parent families. The left is never going to embrace these things ultimately because they all undermine their beloved state.

All I can surmise is that this guy is a deft player in navigating the wilds of academia and foundation-world to still be academically alive with these conclusions. One can imagine that he may run into trouble for saying them eventually. But they are true and he didn't need to take a statistical end run to find them, though it's probably helpful that he did.

His efforts to find the truth are admirable, and thus far, I am impressed. Read the whole thing here.

Image credit: Twitter screen shot





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