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Zipcode Destiny: The Persistent Power Of Place And Education

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.

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Camila Vargas-Restrepo