Oct 1, 2018 · 8 min read

Opportunity Insights Launches with Support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative


CAMBRIDGE, MA –A new research and policy institute focused on improving economic opportunity was announced today. Opportunity Insights is founded by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Nathaniel Hendren and represents a partnership between leading economists from Harvard University and Brown University. The institute’s research on economic mobility harnesses the power of big data to document both the decline of the American Dream and potential solutions to revive it.  Its central mission is to develop scalable policy solutions that empower families throughout the United States to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes.

“We are launching Opportunity Insights now because the American Dream of upward income mobility has faded out of reach for many Americans,” said Chetty.  “We are poised to work on reversing this trend because we have many new insights into the key drivers of economic mobility thanks to `big data’ and advances in scientific research. Our goal now is to take those insights and work collaboratively with stakeholders ‘on the ground’ to translate them into changes that will improve the lives of Americans in communities across the country.”

Opportunity Insights builds upon the success of the Equality of Opportunity Project, a research partnership focused on understanding the hidden forces influencing the achievement of upward mobility. Leveraging big data to explore some of the most enduring beliefs about American society, the group has released research on how children’s neighborhoods shape their future economic success and data on every college and university in America’s role in helping students move up the income ladder. In addition, the project convened the Collegiate Leaders in Increasing MoBility (CLIMB) initiative – a partnership with higher education institutions representing over 2.5 million students across the country – and, most recently, released research with the US Census Bureau on the impact of race on a child’s economic prospects.

The project’s work has shaped policy discussions at the national and local level and has been cited in congressional testimony and Presidential State of the Union addresses. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt has called Chetty, Friedman, and Hendren’s research, “the most important research effort in economics today.”  

Opportunity Insights’ founding is made possible with generous gifts from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, with additional support from the Overdeck Family Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“We’ve learned from our work in the U.S. and around the world that local, state and national leaders need actionable information about the why of poverty to improve the lives of their citizens,” said Dr. Sue Desmond-Hellmann, Chief Executive Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Having witnessed the power of data to make a difference when provided to those closest to the problems needing to be solved, we made Opportunity Insights one of the first investments of our new U.S. Economic Mobility and Opportunity program.”

“We want to take luck out of the equation so more children across the country are able to reach their full potential,” said Priscilla Chan, co-founder of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “We are thrilled to support this new effort to better understand the drivers of poverty as well as solutions that can foster greater economic mobility and security for more families.”

The institute’s commitment to understanding and increasing upward mobility goes beyond research. A new policy team, led by David A. Williams, former Senior Advisor to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, will work directly with policy makers and practitioners to increase equality of opportunity in their own cities and towns. Policy partnerships have been established in Charlotte, NC; Seattle, WA; Minneapolis, MN; and Detroit, MI to date with plans now underway for additional efforts in cities nationwide.

“While serving in Detroit, my colleagues and I always asked ourselves if our work was tangibly improving the life outcomes of our most vulnerable residents. It is a question that most policymakers are not fully equipped to answer,” said Williams. “The collaborative Opportunity Insights approach will support communities with the research and analytical support they need to ask and answer the questions that matter most and create impactful policies and programs to fight poverty and increase local opportunity.”

“Often public policy is the flavor of the moment. The program choices that result are not well defined. Further, research and testing are all too often divorced from the programs we administer so we are not ‘learning’ by doing,” said Greg Russ, Executive Director/CEO of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. “The creation of the Opportunity Insights Policy Institute, coupled with the Opportunity Atlas, change the game. We now have data, an economic map (a new geography) that is rich with opportunities for families and their children. Our task is to apply this information to the programs we administer and determine what factors best help families make and sustain a move. This is the power of a rich data and policy connection – lives can be substantially better and families more secure.”


Drawing on Insights from the Opportunity Atlas to Improve Neighborhoods:

A key asset for Opportunity Insights’ work is the Opportunity Atlas — a new free online resource constructed in collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau and funded with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Opportunity Atlas provides data on children’s outcomes in adulthood for every Census tract in the United States through an interactive map providing detailed research on the roots of these outcomes, such as poverty and incarceration rate, back to the neighborhoods in which children grew up.  This tool will enable policy makers, practitioners, and the public the unprecedented ability to look within their city to understand better where opportunity exists and how each neighborhood shapes a child’s future economic and educational success.

“Our work suggests that neighborhoods are where the next generation is shaped. If you want to improve kids’ outcomes in adulthood, go to the places where they grow up. That’s where you can change the trajectory,” said Hendren. “When we work with local partners, they have a better sense of what approaches might work in their area. Our work reveals where children struggle the most. The power is in merging the two together.”

Opportunity Insights researchers will build on their established research agenda and new policy offerings by bringing together scholars from multiple disciplines and universities to collaborate on future studies.  This collaborative model will illuminate new perspectives in the social sciences and create pathways for the next generation of academics interested in furthering the field.

“Understanding inequality has always been a key objective of economists, but we never had the richness of data to look intergenerationally and at such geographically granular levels,” said Enrico Moretti, Michael Peevey and Donald Vial Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. “The Equality of Opportunity’s [now Opportunity Insights] path-breaking research in this area is both technically rigorous and influential.  It is hard to overstate how much this has affected not only the social sciences but also how we think about policy intervention. By focusing new methods on an old set of questions, this research has changed how we think about inequality, poverty, and fairness.”  

Opportunity Insights’ researchers have previously shown that children’s chances of earning more than their parents did has declined from 90 percent to 50 percent over the last fifty years; the new institute’s collaborative and multi-pronged approach emphasizing research, policy, and pipeline change will act as a force multiplier in the movement to address poverty and inequality of opportunity.

“Our approach is to partner with policymakers and others in communities nationwide, harnessing the power of big data to find local solutions for local problems,” Friedman said. “Low rates of upward mobility in the United States are an incredibly challenging problem – but we can make progress by understanding exactly how opportunity is lacking in each specific setting, and then tailoring the policy solution appropriately.  We will partner not only with cities but also schools, colleges, community groups, and practitioners, whomever has the right tools to improve the outcomes of all children.”

The launch of Opportunity Insights comes as Chetty returns to Harvard University as the inaugural William A. Ackman Professor of Public Economics. Chetty is a MacArthur “Genius” and winner of the 2013 John Bates Clark medal, awarded by the American Economic Association to the economist under age 40 whose work is judged to have made the most significant contribution to the field.

“Harvard is thrilled to be home to Opportunity Insights. Improving economic and social mobility is essential to the strength of the nation, and we look forward to the critical work that Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, and their colleagues will undertake to improve our understanding of interventions and policies that work,” said Lawrence S. Bacow, President of Harvard University. “Effectively addressing poverty cannot be done by any one group or organization, and I am delighted that Harvard is part of a collaborative approach with partners at a national level and in communities around the country.”



Opportunity Insights is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization located at Harvard University that seeks to translate insights from rigorous, scientific research to policy change by harnessing the power of “big data” using an interdisciplinary approach.

Formerly known as the Equality of Opportunity Project, Opportunity Insights disseminates research beyond academia, and develops scalable policy solutions that empower families throughout the United States to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes. For more information, please visit: www.opportunityinsights.org.


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