Stories

How economic inequality hurts US innovation

A high-school inventor competes in a robot design competition at Javits Center in New York in 2014

Equally skilled children from lower income households are less likely to become inventors than their higher-income counterparts, according to a study published by the Equality of Opportunity project. Race and gender discrepancies were reported, as well. "These gaps don't seem to be about differences in ability to innovate — they seem directly related to environment," study author Raj Chetty told The Atlantic's Alana Semuels.

The bottom line: Lower income children, children of color, and female children aren't being encouraged to become inventors, according to the study authors. This means people who have the potential to innovate are entering other fields. And since innovation leads to economic growth, the gaps are harming the U.S. economy, they argue.

What they did: The researchers cross-referenced US patent applications from 1996-2014 with federal income tax returns, and used that data to trace inventors' life histories. All told, they looked at 1.2 million individuals.

What they found:

  • Children from lower income families are 10 times less likely to file a patent than children from high income families.
  • White children are 3 times more likely to file a patent than black children.
  • Children in lower-income neighborhoods are less likely to grow up around academics or inventors. Without those role models, the researchers say they're less likely to enter such fields.
  • Children are inspired by inventors who look like them. Girls were more likely to file patents if they grew up in an area with lots of female inventors, but not if they grew up in an area with male inventors.