Economics, upward mobility, and the power of the intact family

The Atlantic has a fascinating article in its August 2019 issue on world-renown economist Raj Chetty and the work he is doing on generational opportunity and the stalled-out American dream.

Chetty was born in New Dheli, India, and emigrated to America at age 9, where he was afforded many opportunities he took advantage of to climb the social ladder, so to speak, even so far as to graduate from one of America’s most elite universities, Harvard University, in just three years. Chetty now works for Harvard where he leads a research and policy institute called Opportunity Insights that mines big data at microscopic levels in order to pinpoint the key factors essential to repairing America’s broken dream.

The article is a great read in and of itself, but one insight from the article that sociologist Bradford Wilcox highlighted on Twitter caught my attention like a strobe light:

Here is Raj Chetty, a top-tier economist — about whom it has been said it is not “if he will win a Nobel Prize, but when” — tipping his hat to the kind of biblical and natural wisdom that is so patently obvious for those with ears to hear, but so rare among today’s culture makers, even within some evangelical circles. Here’s Chetty’s insight in context:

“For all he’s learned about where opportunity resides in America, Chetty knows surprisingly little about what makes one place better than another. He and Hendren have gathered a range of social-science data sets and looked for correlations to the atlas. The high-opportunity places, they’ve found, tend to share five qualities: good schools, greater levels of social cohesion, many two-parent families, low levels of income inequality, and little residential segregation, by either class or race. The list is suggestive, but hard to interpret.

“For example, the strongest correlation is the number of intact families. The explanation seems obvious: A second parent usually means higher family income as well as more stability, a broader social network, additional emotional support, and many other intangibles. Yet children’s upward mobility was strongly correlated with two-parent families only in the neighborhood, not necessarily in their home. There are so many things the data might be trying to say. Maybe fathers in a neighborhood serve as mentors and role models? Or maybe there is no causal connection at all. Perhaps, for example, places with strong church communities help kids while also fostering strong marriages. The same kinds of questions flow from every correlation; each one may mean many things. What is cause, what is effect, and what are we missing? Chetty’s microscope has revealed a new world, but not what animates it—or how to change it” (emphasis added).

You’ve got to read the whole thing for yourself, and then ponder with me the role the church might play to change our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and states to stem the tidal erosion around the natural family that is not only undermining our society, but also gutting the very institution designed for our greatest flourishing — both spiritual and material.

Chetty is after an animating change agent. Let’s give the world the Word and the Spirit, and encourage fathers and mothers to love their children and their children’s children enough to stay together — a decision with temporal and eternal consequence.

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

–Malachi 4

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