Detailed Picture of ‘Inequality of Opportunity’ Emerges

  • By Dian Schaffhauser

Where kids grow up has a big impact on how well they’ll do as adults. While that may sound obvious, a new program that brings together economists from Harvard University and Brown Universtiy and researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau has found that kids who grow up in the same community just miles apart end up with very different futures.

The project will use census tract-level data to develop scalable policy solutions that could enable families throughout the United States to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes. Harvard’s Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren and Brown’s John Friedman will be co-directors of the project.

The work is being funded through grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, with additional support from the Overdeck Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Opportunity Insights, as the initiative is called, will use big data and advances in scientific research to work with collaborators in improving “the lives of Americans in communities across the country,” according to Chetty, the inaugural William A. Ackman Professor of Public Economics at Harvard.

A big part of the work involves the Opportunity Atlas, a freely available online resource produced with help from the U.S. Census Bureau. The atlas provides data on children’s outcomes in adulthood for every Census tract in the United States. The interactive map uses the adult earnings of 20.5 million children born between 1978 and 1983 and drawn from anonymous, individual-level census and tax data that ties each child to his or her parents. It also examines incarceration rates for the neighborhoods in which children grew up, based on a data snapshot taken on April 1, 2010. Even though the data reflects the outcomes for people who are now in their 30s, the research project believes the outcomes hold true for children growing up today as well. This tool is intended to help people look within their cities to understand where opportunity exists and how each neighborhood shapes a child’s future economic and educational success.

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