Something interesting happens when we compare the study on adoptions with this work on neighborhoods. We find that one factor about a home—its location—accounts for a significant fraction of the total effect of that home. In fact, putting together the different numbers, I have estimated that some 25 percent—and possibly more—of the overall effects of a parent are driven by where that parent raises their child. In other words, this one parenting decision has much more impact than many thousands of others.
Why is this decision so powerful? Chetty’s team has a possible answer for that. Three of the biggest predictors that a neighborhood will increase a child’s success are the percent of households in which there are two parents, the percent of residents who are college graduates, and the percent of residents who return their census forms. These are neighborhoods, in other words, with many role models: adults who are smart, accomplished, engaged in their community, and committed to stable family lives.
There is more evidence for just how powerful role models can be. A different study that Chetty co-authored found that girls who move to areas with lots of female patent holders in a specific field are far more likely to grow up to earn patents in that same field. And another study found that Black boys who grow up on blocks with many Black fathers around, even if that doesn’t include their own father, end up with much better life outcomes.
I will add this to my list of why it matters where people choose to live: it affects the life chances of kids.
Just having this data only goes so far. A few examples of where it gets trickier to figure out what to do with such information:
- How many parents would act on the information compared to other reasons for choosing where to live?
- How many parents could act on this information even if they wanted to?
- Are there enough neighborhoods in which children could benefit? Do the current residents of such neighborhoods want lots of people moving in?
- Are parents responsible for moving kids to such locations or are other actors responsible for helping kids live in these locations?
And so on. The implications of these findings could take decades to work out, particularly as Americans generally want to provide opportunities for their kids.