Spotlight Exclusives

“The Lost Einsteins” – How Potential Low-Income Innovators Fall Through the Cracks

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

“Innovation is seen as the engine of economic growth,” says Raj Chetty, professor of Economics at Stanford University. So, why is the United States failing to lift up potential innovators from low-income communities? How does this phenomenon persist through generations and across states? What could happen if this trend were to change? These are the questions that researchers at the Equality of Opportunity Project at the Brookings Institution seek to answer.

On Thursday, Chetty presented his team’s findings—“Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation”—on the dearth of innovators from many historically disenfranchised communities. Following his presentation, he was joined by Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, and Tony Jack, assistant professor of Education at Harvard University, for a discussion moderated by Brookings senior fellow Richard Reeves that focused on strategies to harness this underutilized, untapped talent.

Chetty and his colleagues found that in 1940, 92 percent of children would eventually earn a higher income than their parents – a near universal achievement of the American Dream. As of the 1980s—children entering the marketplace today—that rate was cut nearly in half. They argue that this lack of mobility has caused whole generations of potential innovators to be lost, struggling to make ends meet instead of contributing to their field.

“Who Becomes an Inventor in America?” found that if low-income groups invented at the same rate as white men from high-income families, there would be four times as many inventors in America today. Additionally, based on the current paltry rate of growth for female innovators, measured in terms of patents, it would take 118 years for half of patent-holders to be women.

Chetty, however, ended on a hopeful note, outlining potential solutions to help recover these “Lost Einsteins”:

  • Identify women, minorities, and low-income children who excel in math and sciences early.
  • Increase exposure to innovation through tailored mentoring, internships, and expanding opportunities.
  • Scientifically evaluate the impacts of current interventions.

During the panel session, Saujani and Jack helped contextualize Chetty’s research through everyday application and via their own research.

Saujani argued that the issue is partly a cultural problem. “When girls are exposed to female inventors—even if it’s as simple as watching a movie—a light goes off in her head: ‘oh, I can do that too,’” she said. “It is simply an idea or concept that is now born in a young girl’s mind of what’s possible in her life journey.”

Saujani emphasized that to inspire and cultivate young, low-income individuals, educators and influencers have to collectively demonstrate that there is diversity in these fields – and that these children can be successful, too.

Jack added that mentorship has a proven effect and can play a key role in shaping the futures of students. He reaffirmed Chetty’s point that it is up to educators and policymakers to ensure that working class students aren’t left out from higher education opportunities.

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