Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Raj Chetty

For the past five years, any list of suggested Annual Meeting speakers has seen Raj Chetty’s name toward the very top.

It’s not hard to understand why – Chetty’s groundbreaking research has leveraged the combination of computational power and massive data sets to reveal striking truths about social mobility and inequality in America. For grantmakers seeking to make the biggest impact with their investments, Chetty’s findings are indispensable.

Since 2018, Chetty has led the work of Opportunity Insights, a research and policy institute housed at Harvard University. Soon after it was established, Opportunity Insights released The Opportunity Atlas, which allows visitors to examine, down to the Census tract level, the impact race, gender and parental income have on the next generation.

The story told by this data is not encouraging. In short, where someone was born plays an outsized impact on their ability to climb the socioeconomic ladder. The impact of racism is impossible to ignore – for Black children, escaping generational poverty is far more difficult than for white children, even when other variables remain the same.

Chetty’s work, however, does not end once the data is published. “The big-picture goal,” Chetty told The Atlantic in 2019, “is to revive the American dream.”

To achieve that incredible goal, Chetty and Opportunity Insights have forged partnerships with cities across the country, including Charlotte, where its partners include the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Gambrell Foundation. Last year, Opportunity Insights released its first report on the Charlotte Opportunity Initiative.

“Not only was it damning research about mobility outcomes for children born in our community, but it struck at the very core of Charlotte’s persona – a place where meritocracy rules and everyone has a fair shot at the American Dream,” Brian Collier, executive vice president for Foundation for the Carolinas, wrote in the report’s introduction. “Admittedly, the research simply affirmed what those living the experience already knew, but the rigor of Professor Chetty’s research and our low ranking in comparison to 49 other large cities made addressing the issue unavoidable.”

Chetty’s own life story illustrates the impact one’s upbringing can have on their fortunes years later. Chetty’s mother was the only one of five siblings to graduate from college, thanks largely to the well-timed opening of a women’s college in her hometown. The children of those siblings – Chetty and his cousins – have experienced drastically different lives since then, including one that ended in suicide for a cousin without the means to seek other opportunities.

Chetty told The Atlantic that, without the coincidence that allowed his mother to attend college, his life would have been far different.

“I would likely not be here,” he said. “To put it another way: Who are all the people who are not here, who would have been here if they’d had the opportunities? That is a really good question.”


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