Economist Raj Chetty is not modest in his aims: “The big-picture goal is to revive the American dream,” he told the Atlantic. Born in New Delhi, India, Chetty came to the United States at the age of nine with his sister, his mother, a pediatrics professor who almost wasn’t given the opportunity to attend college, and his father, an economics professor who grew up in a family of modest means. For Chetty, the American dream unfolded like the ideal: he earned his PhD from Harvard University at 23, joining the faculties at UC Berkeley and then Stanford University before going on to become one of the youngest professors to be granted tenure in Harvard’s history. His groundbreaking research has earned him numerous honors: awarded the John Bates Clark Medal of the American Economic Association in 2013, Chetty has been named both a MacArthur Fellow (2012) and an Andrew Carnegie Fellow (2019).
The big data research that has made Chetty one of the world’s best-known economists has laid bare the gap between that idealistic American dream and — for many — the disheartening reality. In addition to his position as the William A. Ackman Professor of Economics at Harvard University, Chetty directs Opportunity Insights, a research lab that aims to identify barriers to economic and social mobility and develop scalable policy solutions to overcome them. With his collaborators, Chetty has evaluated colleges based on their effectiveness in propelling students from poverty into the middle class and proposed a simple strategy to reduce economic segregation at the nation’s most elite universities. He conducted an experiment to incentivize low-income families to move to high-opportunity neighborhoods that yielded an exceptionally strong, positive impact where other such efforts had failed. And he developed the Opportunity Atlas, an interactive tool that — tracking data for 20 million Americans from childhood to their mid-30s from every census tract in the U.S. — seeks to answer the question: “Which neighborhoods in America offer children the best chance to rise out of poverty?”
Most recently, Chetty helped launch a resource to monitor the real-time economic impact of COVID-19 on people, businesses, and communities across the United States. This tool enables policymakers to make evidence-based decisions that balance vital public health priorities with the economic needs of their communities.
Chetty is optimistic about the potential of big data to inform policy and revive the American dream for the next generation, including immigrants — like his own family — who have long pinned their hopes on its promise. As Chetty told the Harvard Gazette, “For us and many immigrants, that’s what America’s all about. If you work hard, you can move up, you can do whatever you want. The sky’s the limit.”