Intergenerational Mobility in the United States: Mechanisms and Policy Impacts

Awarded Scholars:
Raj Chetty, Harvard University
Nathaniel Hendren, Harvard University
Project Date:
Dec 2015
Award Amount:

While theoretical analysis of intergenerational mobility has a long tradition in economics, empirical evidence has lagged behind because of a lack of adequate data. Few survey data sets provide information on both parent and child outcomes, and those that do generally have small samples. To address this gap, economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren have constructed new public use statistics on intergenerational mobility in the United States using tax data from more than 40 million children and their parents. The data set was made public in January 2014 as part of the Equality of Opportunity Project.

Given the richness of this new data set, RSF issued a request for proposals in 2014 to encourage other researchers to use the data to obtain new insights on intergenerational mobility from population-based statistics. A second proposal encourages other researchers to use the data to study the mechanisms of intergenerational mobility and explore how policies in various areas, including education and housing, can impact mobility. The following projects are being funded under this initiative:

Did Great Migration Destinations become Mobility Traps?

Ellora Derenoncourt (Harvard University)

Derenoncourt will answer the question of how differences of racial segregation and composition, quality of public goods, and prevailing family structures arose in high and low mobility areas. She will use idiosyncratic variation in the locations where African American migrants settled prior to 1970 to estimate the effects of the major population movement of the Great Migration on the distribution of economic opportunity across these areas today. She will draw upon publicly available statistics on intergenerational mobility by place from the Equality of Opportunity project, historical and contemporary data from the US Decennial Census, City and County Data Books, the Census of Governments, and the National Center for Educational Statistics, among others. In her analysis, she will look at outcomes for permanent residents, address the fact that families sort across destinations by using neighborhood mobility effects, and she will examine measures of segregation, public goods expenditures, school quality, and wealth accumulation. 

Do Public Works Programs Increase Intergenerational Mobility? Evidence from the Works Progress Administration

Ryan D. Enos (Harvard University)

Enos will investigate the extent to which the state can facilitate intergenerational mobility by studying the implementation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) between 1935-43. He hypothesizes that increased individual-level participation in the WPA program and county-level exposure to WPA spending should increase intergenerational mobility at the individual and county levels, respectively. Enos will utilize a micro and macro level research design. He will collect original data on WPA participation, link them to the 1915 Iowa State Census records and the 1940 Federal Census. He will then use machine learning algorithms to automate the record linkage process. At the county-level, Enos will use data on WPA spending combined with data from the Equality of Opportunity project. For causal identification, he will leverage age eligibility discontinuities in individual-level WPA participation and topographical features to produce exogenous variation in the individual propensity to sign up for the WPA program and the county-level demand for WPA spending. 

The American Dream in the Great Depression: Absolute Income Mobility in the United States, 1915-1940

James J. Feigenbaum (Princeton University), Maximillian Hell (Stanford University), and Robert Manduca (Harvard University)

Feigenbaum, Hell, and Manduca will answer the question of whether low absolute mobility rates in recent decades are a new phenomenon or a return to the historical norm. They will use digitized data from the Iowa State Census of 1915, and a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey on incomes in industrial cities conducted in 1918 and 1919 to estimate the rate of upward mobility for cohorts born around 1910, 30 years before the oldest currently available cohort. They will expand the Iowa sample, digitizing new records to roughly double the sample size to 120,000. The core analysis will involve comparing sons’ incomes in 1940 to their fathers’ incomes in the 1910s, adjusted for inflation. This will allow them to extend knowledge of absolute income mobility back into years before 1940.

Estimating the Causal Impact of Affordable Housing on Intergenerational Mobility

Shomon R. Shamsuddin (Tufts University)

Shamsuddin will use a series of quasi-experimental strategies to construct and describe changes in the availability of affordable housing across geographic areas during the past 25 years.  He will also estimate the effect of exposure to affordable housing opportunities on intergenerational economic mobility for lower income households. The project will draw upon publicly available datasets from the U.S. Census and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and previously obtained data from HUD and the Equality of Opportunity Project. Shamsuddin will identify the causal effect of access to affordable housing and estimate effects by using: 1) congressional authorization of the Section 8 housing voucher program as a natural experiment, 2) public housing demolition as a natural experiment, and 3) instrumental variables estimation of available low rent units.


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