Zipcode Destiny | Hidden Brain There's a core belief embedded in the story of the United States: the American Dream. The possibility of climbing the economic ladder is central to that dream. This week we speak with Raj Chetty, one of the most influential economists alive today, about the state of economic mobility in the U.S. and whether the notion of the American Dream is still useful. For more information about the research in this episode, visit

Zipcode Destiny: The Persistent Power Of Place And Education

Zipcode Destiny

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Camila Vargas-Restrepo/NPR
Two neighborhoods, divided by economic mobility
Camila Vargas-Restrepo/NPR

The stories we tell about ourselves — stories of success and stories of failure — often have their beginnings in the distant past. Sometimes, they start in our childhoods. Sometimes, before we were even born.

This idea may sound poetic, but when it comes to economic mobility, there's evidence to back it up. Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard, is responsible for some of the most powerful evidence, drawing on data from many millions of Americans.

Raj has found that early variables in your life, from the quality of your kindergarten teacher to the neighborhood you grew up in, can have lasting effects. And those effects often result in dramatically divergent outcomes in different parts of the country.

"People ask... is the American dream alive or not today? And I actually think the question itself is sort of ill-posed," Raj says. "The term 'the American Dream' --really we should think of it as 'the Iowa Dream' or 'the Atlanta Dream' or 'the California Dream' because there's so much variation within this country."

Today we ask some questions that carry big implications: can you put an economic value on a great kindergarten teacher? How is it that two children living just a few blocks from each other can have radically different chances in life? What gives Salt Lake City an edge over Cleveland when it comes to offering people better prospects than their parents? The state of your American Dream, this week on Hidden Brain.

Additional Reading:

The Opportunity Atlas

"How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence From Project STAR," Raj Chetty, et. al.

"The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility I: Childhood Exposure Effects" by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren

"Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility" by Raj Chetty, et. al.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, Thomas Lu, and Laura Kwerel. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Camila Vargas-Restrepo is our intern. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.