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American Dreamer: Indian American Economist Raj Chetty Awarded Harvard University’s George Ledlie Prize

American Dreamer: Indian American Economist Raj Chetty Awarded Harvard University’s George Ledlie Prize

  • William A. Ackman Professor of Economics and director of Opportunity Insights was honored for his work on wielding big data to break myths about who achieves the American Dream.

Indian American economist Raj Chetty, William A. Ackman Professor of Economics at Harvard University has been awarded the university’s George Ledlie Prize for “wielding big data to break myths about who achieves the American Dream and the obstacles faced by others.” He is also director of Opportunity Insights, a group of economists based at Harvard who study inequality. 

The award is bestowed “no more frequently than every two years to a member of the Harvard community who has “made the most valuable contribution to science, or in any way for the benefit of mankind,” the university said announcing the award in an Aug. 9 press release. Biologist Michael Springer also received the award for “created better, faster COVID test system.”

“Mike and Raj are distinguished researchers who have greatly advanced their respective scientific fields. But they are also committed to improving the well-being of other people, now and in the future,” said University Provost and Chief Academic Officer Alan M. Garber. “Raj’s groundbreaking work on economic mobility and his efforts to share this data with policymakers are making the American Dream more accessible to all.”

Under Chetty’s guidance, Opportunity Insights used “anonymized tax records” to construct the Opportunity Atlas, “an interactive tool that maps out economic outcomes for children across the U.S. to highlight which neighborhoods seem to offer the best chance to rise from poverty,” Harvard said. “The Atlas, which can be viewed free online, uses multigenerational data from 70,000 neighborhoods across America.”

Chetty told the university that he became interested in this work because of his own background. He came to the U.S. from India with his parents when he was 9 years old. He noticed the disparities right away. “My parents, who grew up in very low-income families and villages in South India … the opportunities they had were greatly shaped by the fact that they happened to be the ones who were picked to get a higher education in their families.” He said his parents was the one “chosen” by their respective families to get an advanced education. “And I could kind of see how that’s played out through the generations in my own family, through the opportunities my cousins have had versus what I’ve had … ending up here at Harvard and the various opportunities I’ve had, I felt have stemmed from that.”

According to the Harvard press release, Opportunity Insights “focuses on helping policymakers and economists understand the real-life factors behind economic mobility and pave the way for new approaches to make the American Dream available to all.” Chetty’s work “applies a big-data approach to the science of economic opportunity — providing granular insights in much the same way that a microscope does for the biological sciences.”

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Chetty’s earlier work focused on the fading American Dream, neighborhood variation, and the role of childhood environment as a key driver of economic mobility. He has since gone on to explore other factors, including the role of racial disparities and social capital and connections. This has led to research on public-policy levers — reducing racial and economic segregation, investing in place-based policies, and strengthening higher education — to increase equity and opportunity.

The recognition of his work with the Ledlie prize has meant a lot in part because of its recognition of economics as a science,” he told Harvard. “One of the things I’ve been trying to push toward is making economics more of a science and viewed as a scientific field where it’s not just about making different assumptions and you have one view and I have another view and we kind of have a political debate but really grounded in data, grounded in empirical science,” he said. The award is “especially meaningful” Chetty said, thinking about his mother, a pulmonologist, and “coming from a family of people in natural sciences.”

(Top photo, courtesy, Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer)

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