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Clinton taps Harvard professor’s ideas on social mobility

Hillary Clinton recently took a private meeting with Harvard professor Raj Chetty to hear about his research on social mobility.MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA/File 2014

Harvard professor Raj Chetty flew from Boston to New York City about two months ago to give a private tutorial on his research into social mobility. The student: Hillary Clinton.

In a conference room at her Manhattan personal office, he clicked through a set of slides including a map of the United States that shows how poor children are more likely to get ahead in some parts of the country than in others. The meeting, which included members of Clinton’s staff, lasted two hours.

Clinton absorbed the lesson well.

At a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress in Washington last month, she cited Chetty by name and echoed his work: “Why do some communities, frankly, have more ladders for opportunity than others?” Clinton asked.


With Hillary Clinton expected to launch her presidential campaign on Sunday, Democratic donors and strategists agree that her message will have to address the yawning gap between the rich and lower classes in America. How she will navigate this issue, and what the broader theme of her campaign will be, has been one of the pressing questions of her precampaign period.

Chetty’s emphasis on upward mobility offers a less divisive way to address middle class economic issues than the rhetoric of income inequality that progressives in the Democratic Party like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and her followers are pushing. It’s also more palatable to large corporations and wealthy donors who have funded her previous campaigns.

The other key topic Clinton is expected to quickly embrace — women’s issues — appears to be less fraught.

Clinton “leaned in” on that topic at an Emily’s List gala in Washington, according to one of staff member at the organization. She delighted the room when she ticked off a list of issues the group cares about: Access to paid sick days, paid medical and family leave, affordable child care and more flexible work schedules.


Harvard professor Raj Chetty.Tsar Fedorsky/Home Front Communications/Home Front Communications

“It’s an outrage that so many women are still paid less than men for the same work,” Clinton said. “These aren’t just problems for women. They’re problems for families and for our entire economy.”

Clinton’s expected to make her first trip to Iowa next week. Emily’s List activists are hoping that the trip — which will be heavily covered by the national media — will coincide with Equal Pay Day on Tuesday, and bring more attention to the gap in salaries between men and women.

And many are noting that Clinton is already embracing the historic nature of her White House bid more than she did in 2008. She’s taken a series shots at Senate Republicans for stalling the nomination of Loretta Lynch for attorney general via her Twitter feed. And she used Twitter for a playful back-and-forth with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, where both women touted their Wellesley College educations.

Albright wrote: “Statistics show that @Wellesley alums make great Secretaries — right?”

Clinton replied: “There must be something in the water @Wellesley. #YouGoGirl”

Over the past few weeks Clinton has hired staff for her campaign and found office space in Brooklyn for campaign headquarters. A Clinton spokesman, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s precampaign has been winding down: The Ready for Hillary super-PAC, formed to convince the former First Lady to run, spent the week hosting a fire sale on merchandise with prices dropping each day. On Sunday all items were 40 percent off. On Tuesday glassware was 50 percent off. On Wednesday fleece products were 60 percent off. On Friday all T-shirts were on sale for $10.


The same activists buying up the “merch’’ are also ready to hear her start making her case. And polls show that Americans continue to see the economy as the most important issue facing the country.

The research Chetty and his team have done shows that children who grow up in parts of the country with less segregation, less income inequality, stronger schools, more social capital, and stable families are more likely to improve their social standing as adults. He and his colleagues are preparing to release policy prescriptions in coming months.

Clinton was “really interested in issues of social mobility and the American dream” during their meeting Chetty said. “She really engaged with the data,” Chetty recalled.

He also spoke at last year’s Clinton Global Initiative meeting, where he mentioned his signature eye-popping statistic: “Chances of achieving the ‘American Dream’ are almost two times higher in Canada than the United States,” he said, showing slide with data to back up the claim.

Other researchers on his project said that people from different political backgrounds tend to seize on different parts of the work. “When you look at the data it is a political Rorschach test,” said Nathaniel Hendren, an assistant professor at Harvard.

Indeed, on Monday Chetty said he plans to talk with Republican Jeb Bush, who is also mulling a White House run. He’s also sat down with Warren in her Cambridge home and spoken with President Obama.


Thinkers in the left wing of the party are skeptical of what Chetty’s findings will mean when injected into a presidential campaign.

“Social mobility is a good thing, but it is not the right question,” said Damon Silvers, the Director of Policy and Special Counsel for the AFL-CIO. “The right question is what happens to the majority of us who work hard and don’t make it to the top of the pyramid?”

Clinton has sent some soothing signals to the progressive wing of the party. She has consulted with Joseph Stiglitz in recent months, a Nobel prize winning economist who recently wrote a book entitled “The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future.”

During the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Clinton was asked about income inequality and seemed to fuse the ideas from thinkers on both wings of the party. Her answer of noted the importance of bolstering the middle class with the notion of helping children move up the social ladder.

“We’ve always been very proud of the fact that we have an upwardly mobile expanding middle class society,” Clinton said. “We’ve had this American Dream embedded in our DNA.”

Annie Linskey can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.