New Institute Uses Data to Improve Social Mobility

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Economists from Brown University and Harvard University have launched a new research and policy institute that they say has the potential to revive the American Dream of upward mobility — something that, according to their research, is currently unattainable for most low- and middle-income Americans. The institute, named Opportunity Insights, is dedicated to developing “scalable policy solutions that empower families … to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes,” according to its website.

Researchers Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Nathaniel Hendren launched Opportunity Insights on Oct. 1, the same day they released the results of a monumental research project known as the Opportunity Atlas. This online resource shows rates of college completion, incarceration, and other outcomes for children born in every census district of the U.S. 

The interactive atlas lets users filter results by a myriad of characteristics, such as race and parental income, allowing them to see in precise detail the ways in which a child’s chances of earning a degree, escaping poverty, or other achievements tend to be predetermined by demographics and location. The maps show, for example, that white children in many cities across the U.S. are more likely to attend college than their African American peers, even for those growing up in the same or adjacent neighborhoods. In many cities, living in an affluent district — even for low- and middle-income children — greatly increases the odds that a child will attend college.  

Using the innovative capabilities afforded by the Opportunity Atlas, the economists at Opportunity Insights hope to advance their work to improve social mobility in partnership with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and colleges and universities across the U.S. The institute, which is based at Harvard, has already begun helping communities across the U.S. develop strategies to improve upward mobility by emulating school policies, social services, crime reduction methods, and other activities that tend to produce more equitable, successful outcomes for underserved children.