moving to opportunity and neighborhood effects: why the attention now?
So yesterday I offered some pointers to the neighborhood effects literature, which is relevant to the new research on social mobility that is receiving extensive coverage in the NYT and elsewhere. Commenter Robert Park (it’s good to know that earthly departure does not preclude keeping up with orgtheory) mentioned additional work worth highlighting (links added by me):
On the efficacy of residential mobility programs, I’d note the work of Rosenbaum and Rubinowitz “Crossing the Class and Color Lines” which studies the Gautreaux program, on which MTO was based, and more recently, “Climbing Mt. Laurel” by Doug Massey and colleagues and the work of Stefanie Deluca.
I know I have not mentioned many significant scholars, which I hope will be read not as a slight but as a reflection of how deep and rich this literature is in sociology.
But today I want to add a few comments on the question of why Chetty and Hendren’s work is getting so much attention when related work in sociology has not.
First, I want to be clear about something. It’s true that I’m a little obsessed with economists. But it’s more an intellectual interest than a how-come-they-get-all-the-attention interest. Professionally, I’m interested in how we organize the production and use of knowledge. My first book was about the natural sciences; I’m now studying economics, as the most influential of the social sciences.
“How come they get all the attention” is, though, a question that interests lots of sociologists (and management scholars, and political scientists, and education researchers…). I’ve written about the general success of economics as a discipline relative to sociology before. But here are a few thoughts on why it’s playing out this way in this particular case.
1. The straight science reason.
The papers are significant. They use a new and previously inaccessible type of data—individual tax records—to creatively test the effects of neighborhoods in a way that partially resolves a major puzzle around neighborhood effects: how could so much observational data show that neighborhoods matter, while the Moving to Opportunity experiment demonstrated no economic effects, despite some benefits to physical and mental health. The Chetty and Hendren study shows, for the first time, significant economic effects from MTO—and they’re long-term. Particularly since we’ve got an RCT fetish (too strong?) at the moment, this is a big contribution.
Still, it’s hard to imagine these papers getting the same kind of attention had they been published by leading sociologists in AJS. That leads us to…
2. The media reason.
Economists have become the go-to social scientists for the media on a range of issues, only some of which are strictly economic. This predates the whole Freakonomics phenomenon—now a decade old—as can be seen in this chart of NYT mentions of various disciplines.
But the creation of The Upshot—can you believe only a year ago?—is worth singling out as important. The Upshot was a replacement for FiveThirtyEight, but under the leadership of onetime economics writer David Leonhardt has become much more economic than FiveThirtyEight ever was. Not exclusively, of course—its core conceit is data analysis, and its contributors come from a relative range of disciplines—but it’s clearly tapped into what’s going on in the discipline of economics in a way it is not tapped into, for example, sociology.
Finally, the media timing is “good” with the recent protests in Baltimore. People are, at the moment, concerned about cities in a way they were not a year or two ago.
3. The policy infrastructure reason.
Economists are much better integrated into both politics and policy than sociology is, outside of a few specialized domains like the Census Bureau. The NYT mentions that Chetty “has presented the findings to members of the Obama administration, as well as to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush.”
Sociologists occasionally manage to be heard in elite policy circles—Obama’s take-up of Sara Goldrick-Rab’s free community college plan comes to mind—but this is much rarer and less routine.
But beyond the obvious benefits of being Washington players, or at least having access to the players, I’d point to a second advantage of being part of the policy world: data.
Part of the breakthrough of this study—as well as Emmanuel Saez and collaborators’ work on top incomes, which really put income inequality back on the map—comes from having access to IRS data. Individual-level tax data has only recently been made available, to the point where Science wrote a whole article on how the heck they got access to it. The article suggests Alan Krueger, then chief economist of the Treasury Department, was responsible for sparking IRS openness to academic research. I don’t know if that’s true, but being connected in Washington has opened up a huge new research terrain that isn’t yet accessible to sociologists (or most economists, for that matter).
Finally, linking back to the media reason, when economists don’t have access to government data, they have access to national platforms that allow them to call for it, as Susan Dynarski recently did with student loan data in (again) The Upshot.
4. The political reason.
This is the most subjective, and a little conspiratorial, but I think it’s real. Chetty & Hendren’s work is politically friendly. It’s about mobility, not inequality. Democrats, and especially Hillary Clinton, are too dependent on Wall Street and wealthy donors to really want to make an issue of inequality. Chetty’s work—both these studies and the earlier ones on intergenerational mobility by location—shift the focus back to the safer idea of helping people move up the economic ladder, rather than asking why so few have so much in the first place. Even the name of Chetty’s center—The Equality of Opportunity Project—points away from a focus on inequality.
And this new work on neighborhoods, in contrast to much work in sociology, implies an individualistic set of solutions. As Vox puts it, “Want to help poor kids? Help their parents move to a better neighborhood.” No one, you will notice, is talking about actually improving the bad ones.
I’ll leave the question that raises—how research gets picked up and translated into particular policy solutions—for another post.