Clinton taps Harvard professor’s ideas on social mobility
By Annie Linskey GLOBE STAFF APRIL 10, 2015
Harvard professor Raj Chetty flew from Boston to New York City about two months ago to give a private tutorial on his research into social mobility. The student: Hillary Clinton.
In a conference room at her Manhattan personal office, he clicked through a set of slides including a map of the United States that shows how poor children are more likely to get ahead in some parts of the country than in others.
The meeting, which included members of Clinton’s staff, lasted two hours.
Clinton absorbed the lesson well.
At a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress in Washington last month, she cited Chetty by name and echoed his work: “Why do some communities, frankly, have more ladders for opportunity than others?” Clinton asked. …
The research Chetty and his team have done shows that children who grow up in parts of the country with less segregation, less income inequality, stronger schools, more social capital, and stable families are more likely to improve their social standing as adults. He and his colleagues are preparing to release policy prescriptions in coming months.
Clinton was “really interested in issues of social mobility and the American dream” during their meeting Chetty said. “She really engaged with the data,” Chetty recalled.
He also spoke at last year’s Clinton Global Initiative meeting, where he mentioned his signature eye-popping statistic: “Chances of achieving the ‘American Dream’ are almost two times higher in Canada than the United States,” he said, showing slide with data to back up the claim.
Now, you and I get the joke behind Professor Chetty’s map of upward mobility, but does Chetty, much less poor Hillary?
As I headlined in 2013 when the NYT began promoting Chetty’s map:
The problem with Raj Chetty’s 2013 work on social mobility was that it generates absurd results — West Virginia is a great place for social mobility, while Atlanta and Charlotte are terrible — because he refuses to intelligently consider race in his analysis. Over the generations, the different races in America regress toward different means. So white kids growing up in almost all white West Virginia tend to do better than their parents because they are likely to get the heck out of dismal West Virginia, especially for places like Charlotte and Atlanta.
In contrast, Atlanta attracts affluent college graduate black families. Their kids tend to regress part way back toward the black mean, so it makes Atlanta look bad under Chetty’s methodology.
But in the real world, his results are close to 180 degrees backwards to wise advice: if you are white and young in West Virginia, hit the road; if you are black and looking for a community with a lot of black college graduates to be good role models for your kids, consider Atlanta’s suburbs.
As I explained on my blog in 2014:
Notice that according to Chetty West Virginia is an oasis of income mobility in the East, while nearby North Carolina is an abyss of stasis. Yet, lots of people raised in West Virginia who have something on the ball have moved to North Carolina to get ahead in life.
Since West Virginia is only about 5% black and has attracted very few Hispanics and Asians, the bottom 20% of West Virginians in income are majority white, so their children tend to regress toward the white mean, which is higher than the black mean. The bottom 20% in income in the Charlotte or Atlanta area is highly black, so their children tend to regress toward the black mean. Thus, West Virginia comes out looking better for social mobility than Atlanta and Charlotte in Chetty’s methodology.
This doesn't mean that if you had a peek around the Rawlsian curtain of ignorance, you'd choose to be born in West Virginia because of its strong social mobility. If you knew you were going to be born white, West Virginia would probably be last on your list of states to be born into. Nor does it mean that Blue State policies increase social mobility relative to red state policies. It's just mostly Moynihan's Canadian Border effect in action.
The general lesson of the success of Chetty’s Gladwell-quality work is that race is such a minefield that it lures everybody, even sharp nonwhite guys like Chetty, into Orwellian crimestop, or protective stupidity.
If we want our presidential candidates to get access to better social policy discourse, we need to stop wrecking the careers of the Jason Richwines, James D. Watsons, and Larry Summerses for the crime of telling the truth.