The Science of Opportunity: Using Big Data to Create Better Outcomes for America’s Children


(dramatic music) – I think we all ultimately
want the same thing for our children, that is a shot at the American Dream. It’s the idea that no matter
where you started in life, you have a shot at climbing up, and achieving success. (children chattering happily) I think it’s the central
idea that draws immigrants like myself to come to this country. My parents grew up in very
low-income families in India. America was a place that
transformed their lives, and through my own personal experience, I’ve seen how the effects
of that have cascaded across the generations. (air whooshing) But if we look today, despite the fact that the American economy is one of the strongest
economies in the world, children today, especially
children who grew up in lower income families, don’t have very good odds
of going on to achieve a higher standard of
living than their parents. And so, I went on to
become an economist to try to understand why these
differences were emerging. (soft classical music) So in order to study issues
of equality of opportunity, we fundamentally need data that allows you to follow people across generations. (slides clicking)
Big data. That has proven to be extremely
difficult in social science. But a critical breakthrough came in 2010 when my colleagues at Harvard and I, gained access to anonymized tax census and social security records, information from the government that would allow us to
map the roots of poverty, and inequality in our society. We realized that we had really struck upon a goldmine of information. (dramatic music) As we began to spend
more time with the data, the thing that we were amazed to see was that the roots of economic opportunity lie at a very local neighborhood level. Specifically, we found that
there were high-opportunity neighborhoods where we see
kids go on to have high rates of college attendance,
high levels of earnings, and going down to the
low-opportunity neighborhoods, there were big differences in
terms of children’s outcomes. Digging further, we looked at families that moved across places and we found that moving to a higher-opportunity place earlier on in your childhood, dramatically improves your life outcomes. And so, these data show the geography of upward mobility
across the United States, and I realized this could really change the course of lives in America. (soft music) – [Theo] Toot, toot! – My name is Nikkie Manlapaz, and I am a single mother to my three-year-old son, Theo, in Seattle, Washington. Shortly after Theo was born, we were living with my cousin, and my immediate concern
was the area itself. It was not ideal for raising a child. There were not so many parks or playgrounds, or pre-schools. That was very hard. – I think we want to be a country that has opportunity for everyone. And I think oftentimes, there’s the assumption that
more expensive neighborhoods are just better. But what we see with the data is that, that isn’t always the case. We’re seeing neighborhoods
that might be relatively poor, but actually have really
good neighborhood cohesion, where low-income kids
actually do really well. And so, what we did was
started working directly with the Housing Authority
in Seattle in King County, where some families had access
to Housing Choice Vouchers. But what we see is that
low-income families who use vouchers, oftentimes, end up in
high-poverty neighborhoods with low opportunity for
the kids who grow up there. And so, we’re bringing
the data to the table, and using housing counselors, help recruiting landlords, additional housing services, to make sure that families
actually have access to these areas and these opportunities. (keyboard clacking) – I found out about the Seattle
Housing Voucher program. After I got my voucher,
there was a program CMTO, Creating Moves to Opportunity. They gave me a tour of the areas
they were concentrating on. We saw parks, playgrounds, schools. It was a great way to
see the neighborhoods that have the best opportunities
for raising families. (joyful music) This is my little casa. Having our own place feels really good. There’s quite a few daycare
centers around here. I know there’s a good elementary
school just up the street. I mean, I love this area. (Theo giggling) – What we’re finding from this
experiment is truly amazing. Some of the biggest impacts I’ve ever seen as a social scientist. Had Nikkie stayed in the neighborhood where she lived before, our data show that
Theo’s prospects would be dramatically lower than what they are now. Of course, you can’t move everyone out of low-opportunity areas to
higher opportunity areas, but by using modern data, we can systematically
study which types of places appear to produce better
outcomes for kids, and we can learn lessons
about how we replicate those environments in
lower opportunity areas, and give many more children
from low-income families opportunities to succeed. And so, the beauty of this research, what I find inspiring about it, is that it points to real solutions that can change people’s lives. (children chattering happily) – I always wanted Theo to
have a great education, and because of this program, I really do feel good about his future. Mwah! (both laughing) Now he has opportunities that I never dreamed I could give him. (uplifting music) (air whooshing) (musical flourish)

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