This map, a screenshot from The Opportunity Atlas, shows household income in 2014-2015 for people born between 1978 and 1983 to low-income parents. In areas that are more red, people who grew up in low-income households tended to stay low-income. In areas that are more blue, people who grew up in low-income households tend to make more money. The Opportunity Atlas | Screenshot by NPR
Does the neighborhood you grow up in determine how far you move up the economic ladder?
A new online data tool being made public Monday finds a strong correlation between where people are raised and their chances of achieving the American dream.
Harvard University economist Raj Chetty has been working with a team of researchers on this tool — the first of its kind because it marries U.S. Census Bureau data with data from the Internal Revenue Service. And the findings are changing how researchers think about economic mobility.
It used to be that people born in the 1940s or ’50s were virtually guaranteed to achieve the American dream of earning more than your parents did, Chetty says. But that’s not the case anymore.
“You see that for kids turning 30 today, who were born in the mid-1980s, only 50 percent of them go on to earn more than their parents did,” Chetty says. “It’s a coin flip as to whether you are now going to achieve the American dream.”
Chetty and his colleagues worked with the Census Bureau’s Sonya Porter and Maggie Jones to create the The Opportunity Atlas, which is available to the public starting Monday.
At first glance, it looks a lot like a Google map, where users can see the whole country, or zoom in to local neighborhoods. The difference is in the amount of data that pops up when a neighborhood is highlighted.
Researchers hope this data will help communities understand and tackle the barriers that prevent people from climbing the economic ladder. They want policymakers to use this data to offer new solutions locally.
Chetty explains that the government data they are working with is kept anonymous. The information can help pinpoint the places where lots of kids are climbing the income ladder and “the places where the outcomes don’t look as good,” he says.
Chetty found that if a person moves out of a neighborhood with worse prospects into to a neighborhood with better outlooks, that move increases lifetime earnings for low-income children by an average $200,000. Of course, moving a lot of people is impractical, so researchers are instead trying to help low-performing areas improve…