This post was contributed by Dayna Moelleken, a student in my undergraduate social stratification class.
The term "American Dream" relates to the assumption that every American can achieve success and prosperity through initiative, determination, and hard work. However, could it be that the American Dream is far likelier to be realized among those born into the right family in the right zip code? Like most Americans, I believed that if you worked hard and wanted it badly enough, it could be yours. Of course I knew that in reality such factors as sex, race, and class background could influence one’s trajectory, but I did not fully appreciate the relevance of location.
In this PBS Race Matters segment, Harvard economist Raj Chetty builds a strong case demonstrating that where you grow up profoundly affects your life chances. Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren studied more than 5 million U.S. children and found that those living in low-poverty neighborhoods, in comparison with poor children in high-poverty areas, were far more likely to attend college, less likely to be involved in teen pregnancy, and also as adults, earned higher incomes and had more stable families (Chetty and Hendren, 2015). Chetty also cites The Moving to Opportunity Study that had similar findings. Vouchers were given to 4,600 families, which allowed them to move into higher income areas. Children under the age of 8 that were moved into low-poverty neighborhoods were 30 percent more likely to go to college and had higher incomes than those remaining in poor locations. Chetty argues that such findings are largely the consequence of far better schools and exposure to positive role models.
So how do we fix this problem? Chetty says vouchers and relocation aren’t a permanent solution to helping the poor because everyone can’t be moved. Rather, he argues that mobility out of poverty will more extensively be achieved by significant public investment in improving impoverished areas.
To see how your area influences social mobility of its youth, employ this New York Times interactive graphic based on research by Chetty and Hendren.