Social scientists have made it a priority in recent years to understand upward mobility. Using tax data and other data, they investigated which factors increase the likelihood that children growing up in poverty can escape it as adults.
Education, from pre-K to college, seems to play a big role, the research suggests. Money itself is also important: longer, deeper periods of poverty can affect children for decades. Other factors, such as avoiding eviction, access to good medical care, and growing up in a two-parent household can also make upward mobility more likely.
Now there’s another intriguing factor to add to the list, thanks to a study published this morning in the academic journal Nature: friendships with people who are not poor.
“Growing up in a community that is connected across class boundaries improves children’s outcomes and gives them a better chance of lifting out of poverty,” Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist and one of the study’s four lead authors, told The Times.
The research tries to quantify the effect in several ways. One of the sharpest, I think, compares two otherwise similar children in lower-income households – one who grows up in a community where social contacts tend to come from the lower half of the socioeconomic distribution, and another who grows up in a community where social contacts contacts usually come from the top half.
The mean difference between the two, in terms of their expected adult outcomes, is significant, the authors report. It’s like the gap between a kid growing up in a family making $27,000 a year and a kid growing up in a family making $47,000.
The research is based on a staggering amount of data, including the Facebook friendships of 72 million people. (You can explore the findings through these charts and maps from The Upshot.)
Robert Putnam — a political scientist who has long studied social interactions, including in his book “Bowling Alone” — said the study was important, in part because it hinted at ways to increase upward mobility. “It offers some avenues or clues through which we can move this country in a better direction,” he said.
In recent decades, the US has moved in the opposite direction. Rising economic inequality and a shortage of new housing in many communities have contributed to increased economic segregation. Even within communities, social interactions between classes seem to have declined.
This chart shows the extent to which Americans split by class:
The Story of Mari Bowie
There seem to be three main mechanisms through which cross-class friendships can increase one’s chances of escaping poverty, Chetty told me.
The first is the heightened ambition: social awareness can give people a clearer picture of what is possible. The second is basic information such as how to apply for college and for financial aid. The third is networking, like getting an internship recommendation.
My colleague Claire Cain Miller, after speaking with the authors of the study over the past few weeks, set out to find some real-world examples of the findings. Claire focused on Angelo Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, California, a mid-sized city between Sacramento and Oakland. The school has an unusually high number of classroom interactions. One of the people Claire interviewed was Mari Bowie, a 24-year-old who grew up in a lower-middle-class family that faced divorces, layoffs, and lost homes—and befriended wealthier girls in high school.
“My mom really instilled in us hard work — if you’re knowledgeable about our family history, you’ve got to be better, you’ve got to do better,” Bowie said. “But I didn’t know about the SAT and my friends’ parents had signed up for this class, so I thought I should do that. I’ve had friends’ parents look at my personal statements.”
Today, Bowie is a criminal defense attorney. She found her job through the boyfriend of one of her high school friends.
How churches shine
Angelo Rodriguez High School is a telling case study because it is more economically and racially diverse than most schools. This diversity is necessary for a high level of socio-economic integration. But it’s not enough, the study authors say. In some diverse communities, lower- and higher-income Americans lead relatively segregated lives.
In other countries, classroom interactions are more common. The study does not fully explain the differences. But Claire found that high school had deliberately taken steps to connect people.
The school did not draw its students from just one community. It instead had an unusually shaped neighborhood, with both poorer and wealthier neighborhoods, and also accepted some students from outside that district’s borders. The open architecture of the school also encouraged serendipity. “Casual, unstructured interactions between students were a very high priority,” said John Diffenderfer, one of the school’s architects.
What could increase class interactions elsewhere?
Among the promising possibilities, the researchers cite: more housing, including social housing, in affluent areas; more diverse K-12 schools and colleges; and specific efforts — such as public parks that attract a diverse mix of families — to encourage interactions between richer and poorer people.
Churches and other religious organizations may have classes to teach other parts of society. While many churches are socio-economically homogeneous, churches with some diversity tend to foster more cross-class interactions than most other social activities. Churches have a lower level of what the researchers call socioeconomic friending bias.
Youth sports, on the other hand, have become more segregated as affluent families have gathered in so-called travel teams.
A successful effort to increase interactions would probably also need to address the specific roles of race. More racially diverse places tend to have fewer cross-class friendships, the study found.
“Our society is structured to discourage these kinds of cross-class friendships, and many parents, often white, make choices about where they want to live and what extracurricular activities they want their children to give to make those connections less likely,” Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University, Claire’s story expands on the role of race.
it comes down to
The stagnation of living standards for workers and poor Americans is such a huge problem that no change will solve it. But the explosion of academic research on upward mobility, including this new study, has at least provided a clearer picture of what could help. Social integration seems to play a crucial role.
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