Harvard University economics professor Raj Chetty recently sat down to discuss what drives his work — and where he hopes it might take us.
Harvard University economics professor Raj Chetty recently sat down to discuss what drives his work — and where he hopes it might take us.

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Raj Chetty wants to revive the American Dream

HARVARD’S RAJ CHETTY is widely considered one of the world’s most important economists.

He won a MacArthur genius grant in 2012. A year later, he picked up the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to the most promising economist under 40.

And it’s only a matter of time, his colleagues say, before he is awarded the Nobel Prize.

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For years, the economist has brought enormous tranches of data to bear on the most searing questions of national life — race, segregation, the state of the American Dream.

Now, Chetty and his collaborators are trying to turn their research into real-world change through a Harvard Square institute called Opportunity Insights.

In Charlotte, where a booming economy has done little to improve the prospects of low-income kids, they’re exploring ways to expand opportunity in the poorest neighborhoods. And in Seattle, they’re helping families with children move to higher-opportunity areas.

Recently, the Globe sat down with Chetty to discuss what drives his work — and where he hopes it might take us.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Where does your interest in opportunity — and the geography of opportunity — come from?

Part of it is just my own childhood experience. I grew up in India until I was 9 and then came to the United States and saw the tremendous differences in opportunities and outcomes.

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And then going back a generation, my parents grew up in very low-income villages in Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state in India. And my dad lived in a family where — many siblings, they would choose one child to educate because they didn’t have money. And my dad happened to be the one. My mom, likewise.

I have seen how the decisions that were made in that generation have played out across the generations in my family — for my cousins, who had very different opportunities from me and my sisters.

I’ve always been struck by that, always been interested in why are people’s lives so different just because of random chance — which family they were born into, or where they happened to grow up.

RELATED: How 4 scrappy, blue-collar cities outside Boston rescued the American Dream

You’ve been able to demonstrate with your research that place really matters. But it’s unclear why. What’s your best guess?

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My best guess at this point is, honestly, it’s a combination of factors. So the thing people think of most quickly is something like the quality of schools in a neighborhood, which surely matters. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

I’ll give you an example. We’ve done some work looking at inventors — looking at a million people who have patents. And we’re able to trace them back to their childhoods and look at where they grew up.

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And what we find is your chances of becoming an inventor vary greatly depending upon whether you were growing up around an innovation hub. So kids who grow up in Cambridge, for example, or in Silicon Valley, are much more likely to become inventors.

What is particularly striking in that study is the type of innovation you do is greatly influenced by what was going on where you grew up. So if you grew up in an area where a lot of people were innovating in computers, Silicon Valley for instance, versus if you grew up in Minneapolis, which has a lot of medical device manufacturers — even if you took two kids who are currently in Boston, but they grew up in those two different cities, they’re doing very different things.

The kid who grew up in Minneapolis is more likely to have a medical device patent. The kid who grew up in Silicon Valley is more likely to have a patent in computers.

So why do I mention all that here? It seems very unlikely that Minneapolis has schools that prepare you well to make medical devices and Silicon Valley has schools that prepare you well to do something else.

The much more likely thing is what you see as the possibilities, what internships you got, what networks you had, what career paths you consider, were shaped by the social capital — by the networks [around you].

If you take lower-income kids, we see in those data that they are much less likely to become inventors of any type. And they’re much less connected to people of any of these backgrounds. And so, I think a good part of this falls outside the purview of traditional policy instruments that we think about — like, let’s put more money in schools or certain types of programs. What we’re trying to study in much more precise detail now is, how do you create communities that are connected, that then shape kids’ aspirations in different ways?

You’re working with a number of different cities. What interventions strike you as the most promising?

The one that we know works, based on pilots that we’ve done, is helping families move to different neighborhoods — basically trying to reduce segregation in cities.

As a complement to that, there are of course many people who choose to stay in the neighborhoods where they currently live — for good reason. And we want to figure out how we improve opportunities for them as well. And there, I think, as yet, we are less clear on exactly which strategies work, based on the data.

But I think it’s about things related to schools, things related to how you create greater social capital.

What is your ultimate aim?

Our ultimate aim is to figure out how you increase upward mobility across the US and, honestly, provide a template for other places around the world in thinking about how you use data to improve outcomes at a very local level, to tackle national problems.

Local interventions can be powerful. But do you believe that ultimately some sort of larger, national redistribution of wealth is required?

Possibly. People who made it to the very top of the distribution often were lucky to have opportunities that helped them get there. And I think many people believe that you should pay back and help that next generation come up — and create equality of opportunity.

Taxing high income earners and people who have high levels of wealth to support economic opportunity seems like a very reasonable thing to do. But I think figuring out how you deploy that money in the most effective way possible is very important. Because I see lots of programs where we spend billions of dollars and I’m not sure they’re actually having the intended impact.