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Social Mobility and Health Research Initiative

Feb 2016 to Feb 2018


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Inequality and social mobility are receiving increasing attention from policy makers in the United States.  Much of the policy discussion has focused on potential solutions at the national level – providing better access to higher education, changing tax policies, or national initiatives to improve health behaviors.  Although these policies may be quite valuable, recent work conducted by our research group suggests that there is also an important local element to inequality and social mobility.  Motivated by this evidence, this project aims to achieve two goals.  First, we plan to study the extent to which inequality in health outcomes is due to local factors.  This study, led by Raj Chetty in collaboration with David Cutler (Harvard), will use data covering the U.S. population from 1999-2014 to construct new local area measures of life expectancy by income group.  We will also characterize the properties of areas with high vs. low life expectancy conditional on income. Second, in light of preliminary evidence that there is substantial local-area variation in health outcomes and this variation is quite closely related to the variation in social mobility we previously documented, we will study policy interventions that can improve both economic and health outcomes of disadvantaged populations. We will achieve this in three related sub-projects led by Chetty in collaboration with Nathan Hendren (Harvard). First, we will characterize place effects on social mobility at a more local level (e.g., census tract). Second, we will partner with sociologists to conduct mixed-methods studies to identify key mechanisms driving upward mobility. Finally, we will partner with local housing agencies to develop better ways to design housing voucher policies. Ultimately, we hope to identify concrete policy reforms that will create communities that deliver better economic, social, and health outcomes for disadvantaged populations in the United States.