Raj Chetty is a high-powered Harvard econ professor and Hillary Clinton adviser who talked his way into getting a ton of individualized tax data out of the federal government so he could compare social mobility across places in the country by comparing how much money the parents of teenagers made in 1996-2000 versus how much these now early-30s offspring made in 2011-2012.
He started off by looking at where people were from, which led to lots of curious results: for example, West Virginia was a much better place to be from than Charlotte, NC. I pointed out last month a large number of flaws in his methodology and analyses.
Whether or not Raj Chetty has figured out much of value about social mobility among Americans, his project has done wonders for his own social mobility, propelling him into advising the frontrunner in 2016 and today having a huge spread in the New York Times.
Now, Chetty is back with the more sensible-sounding analysis focusing on where families moved to. From today’s New York Times:
Across the country, the researchers found five factors associated with strong upward mobility: less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime, and a larger share of two-parent households. In general, the effects of place are sharper for boys than for girls, and for lower-income children than for rich.
“The broader lesson of our analysis,” Mr. Chetty and Mr. Hendren write, “is that social mobility should be tackled at a local level.”
In some places, the new estimates of mobility conflict with earlier estimates. For example, previous estimates suggested that New York City was a good place for lower-income children to grow up: Children raised in lower-income families in New York had above-average outcomes in adulthood.
But New York appeared above average in part because it has a large number of immigrants, who have good rates of upward mobility no matter where they live: Nothing about New York in particular caused these children to do better.
To remove variation that was simply caused by different types of people living in different areas, Mr. Chetty and Mr. Hendren based the latest estimates on the incomes of more than five million children who moved between areas when they were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. These estimates are causal: They suggest moving a given child to a new area would in fact cause him or her to do better or worse.
In the new estimates, Manhattan ranks among the worst counties in the country for girls from lower-income families.
Here, better or worse is measured by the household incomes of children in early adulthood. This makes New York look worse than it would if individual incomes were used, because it, along with Northern California, has some of the lowest marriage rates in the country. Manhattan is actually better than most of the country at raising the individual incomes of poor girls. Marriage rates, too, are strongly affected by where children grow up.
I haven’t looked at the data in much detail yet, but it appears to still suffer from many of the same problems as Chetty’s previous effort, such as being driven more by short-term local economic booms and busts than by underlying long-term realities (other than, of course, race). For example, if you enter “Williams County, N.D.” into the NYT’s “Atlas of Upward Mobility,” you get:
Williams County is extremely good for income mobility for children in poor families. It is among the best counties in the U.S.
Why is that? Is it because of:
– less segregation by income and race?
– lower levels of income inequality?
– better schools?
– lower rates of violent crime?
– or a larger share of two-parent households?
Well, maybe a little bit, but it’s mostly because Williams County, home of Williston, is home to the North Dakota oil boom. So youngish people whose blue collar families happened to move there since 1996 tended to make a lot of money in 2011-2012, just as teens who happened to be living there in 1996 tended to make a lot of money 2011-2012 as young adults.
Similarly, if you enter Mecklenburg County (home of Charlotte, NC), you are told:
Mecklenburg County is extremely bad for income mobility for children in poor families. It is among the worst counties in the U.S.
Is it because of Segregation and Inequality? Well, maybe a little, but mostly it’s because of two things:
– Unlike in North Dakota, a large fraction of the poor people in North Carolina are black, and blacks regress toward a lower mean of income over the generations than do whites. As I headlined when the NYT first started playing up Chetty’s research back in 2013:
– Charlotte grew steadily for a long time, becoming the nation’s second biggest banking center. Not surprisingly, however, Charlotte got hammered by the financial industry problems of 2008, which spilled over into a decline in home construction, and hurt the furniture and lumbering industries in Charlotte’s hinterlands.
But, let me admit I haven’t had time to fully give Chetty’s new work the gimlet eye yet, so we can still hope it’s a substantial improvement over the massive wasted opportunity he inflicted upon us in the first stage of his giant project.