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The qualitative patterns change a bit, but the question is, what are you trying to measure? Or is it that you actually have the opportunity to earn more than your parents did? I think for many people the dream is about having the opportunities to have the type of job that yields a certain level of earnings. So while we focus on incomes, I think we should recognize that the idea of the American dream is actually much broader than that.

What are the non-policy factors that you have found are most predictive of whether or not a place is going to have high opportunity? High-opportunity areas tend to have less concentrated poverty and tend to be more mixed-income integrated areas. They also tend to be places with more two-parent families. This is actually one of the strongest patterns in the data. Places with more stable family structures, lower divorce rates, and higher marriage rates tend to have higher levels of upward mobility.

We find that even for kids growing up in two-parent families themselves, they are less likely to climb the income ladder if they live in an area with more single parents. Opportunity is not a direct effect of whether your own parents are married. Another factor is social capital. Correspondingly, Salt Lake City has very high rates of upward mobility. Is that a policy factor or not?

Something that your research seems to show again and again is that it is very important whether or not you are grounded in a particular culture. You have interesting research showing that if you grow up in an area with more inventors, then you are more likely to be an inventor, and also far more likely to produce the same kinds of inventions, like medical devices, as others in your area. In the inventors study, for example, we find that increases in inventors occur in a gender-specific manner.

If women grow up in an area where there are more female inventors in a particular field, they are more likely to become mentors themselves in that field. But if there were more male inventors in that area, it has no impact at all on women.

You have a better chance of achieving “the American dream” in Canada than in America

That really seems like the critical factor leading to different trajectories in different places. There are many who hold the view that increasing diversity for the sake of representation is ridiculous. Not everything is about material benefits. Not everything is about direct chances.

I completely agree with that. My sense is the deeper interactions — such as interacting with somebody in your community — has the strongest influence on what you choose to do.

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If I were a policymaker, one of the big takeaways that I would have from your work is that if I care about social mobility, then two of my overriding goals should be promoting economic and racial integration and developing social capital. Are there other macro takeaways that you think policymakers should take from what you found?

I think the other policy takeaways are in the domain of education. Trying to improve the quality of elementary education by retaining and recruiting the most effective teachers has been shown to have extremely large long-term effects. Likewise, in the higher education system, increasing access to institutions that provide pathways to upward mobility is an extremely important goal.

Right now, we have extremely few low-income students at institutions like Harvard and Stanford, which are gateways to elite positions in the country.

Can the American Dream Be Saved? | National Affairs

Rather than anchoring the amount of funding that colleges get to other metrics, you could reward colleges based on how many kids come from low-income families and end up moving into a higher place in the income distribution. I think that kind of thing would move things in the right direction. In a study you released a number a years ago , you showed that having a good teacher early in your life has a huge impact on lifetime earnings. We see quite substantial increases in lifetime earnings on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars per student.

That is remarkable. Considering the incredible value that teachers generate for society, that should be a very high-status profession.

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The idea that the base pay of management consultants is super high but the base pay of teachers is relatively modest seems crazy to me. I agree but would also say that we should have a culture of trying to recruit and retain the top talent in teaching as we do in these other highly paid professions.

So I think providing that kind of flexibility could be extremely valuable. I want to talk about some recent work you and your team did on life expectancy.

Saving the American Dream

You found that the richest American men live 15 years longer than the poorest men, and the richest American women live 10 years longer than the poorest women. I would like to hear a little bit more about your findings here. What do you think are the probable contributors? There are stunningly large differences in life expectancy between the rich and poor in the US.

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The benchmark I like to use is the CDC estimates that if we were to eliminate cancer as a cause of death, we would increase average life expectancy in America by about three years. This year loss of life for big groups of our population should be considered a public health issue, and we should devote an enormous amount of resources to try to understand and identify the cure, as we do for cancers. So how do we go about doing that? I break this into two classes of factors. One is the set of factors that are related to economic inequality — more segregation, have weaker schools, less social capital, and so forth.

In particular, the person in New York lives about three or four years longer than the person in Detroit with comparable income. What we find is that the drivers are health behaviors, not health care access. What does correlate is smoking, obesity, rates of exercise, and so forth. If you look at maps of smoking rates in America for low-income individuals, they look almost identical to these differences in life expectancy for low-income Americans.

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So I think it again comes back to issues of changing social norms and changing behavior. How do we change health behaviors in a way that would narrow some of these gaps, either through preventive care or through education? It depends what your goals are. It tremendously reduces financial risk and financial burden. But I do think we need to have that long-term view that health builds up over time. Many of our health behavior patterns go back to our childhood years. So focusing on health education for kids may have a higher payoff in the long run. One way you could interpret the conversation is that the life expectancy gap is based largely on individual choice.

Health behaviors are the driver here, and health behaviors — like smoking, eating healthy, exercising, etc. So what can we do? But what you just pointed out is that these behaviors are at least partially cultural. People act differently in different places and eras. I grew up in Southern California, and I think that is reflected in my attitudes toward health and diets and exercise today.

In that case, things like economic integration policies really matter because changing locations changes what children absorb. Whereas, developing policies for integration creates more cultural mixing which can have a big effect in the long run. My view is that behavior and individual choice matters a great deal, but choices occur in a framework that we create. The set of norms that prevail in a given area are a function of the types of institutions and policies that we have. I think that is the productive way to look at these issues.

So if you were designing policy here, what are the two or three things you would do to close the life expectancy gap?

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In the long run, those are factors make a huge difference. CEOs want plans for how their companies are going to adopt new technologies — and how their workers are going to adapt to the changes. The emergence of new technologies will create opportunities, but it will also involve a lot of change and will inevitably lead to worker displacement.

Corporate leaders who understand what the future holds are shifting mindsets and actions to play more hands-on roles in helping workers navigate the changes that lie ahead. A tight labor market is creating opportunities for skilled people from populations that are underrepresented in the workforce.

Innovative approaches like skills-based hiring and work-based learning are gaining momentum as ways to tap new pools of talent. These approaches create opportunities for people from underrepresented communities who have potential but may not have been recruited in the past. Resistance to Change Is Real We discovered a mixed bag when it comes to companies taking steps to address looming changes.

Business comes first. Leadership is the difference maker. The difference between companies that successfully prioritize investments in worker well-being and those that do not boils down to leadership. Workforce planning and worker well-being are C-suite priorities at forward-leaning, worker-centric companies. Good Intentions Must Convert into Meaningful Action A wide array of corporate leaders have shown interest in taking action to advance worker well-being.

Businesses with large frontline workforces are investing in upskilling people who hold entry-level jobs. Are you with us? JFF Jobs for the Future is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.