Relationships can have a profound impact on a life, from the schools people attend to the jobs they take. But figuring out how these connections affect an individual’s economic status is difficult. Now, an analysis of billions of Facebook connections suggests that childhood friendships between wealthier and poorer individuals are linked to higher incomes for poor children later in life, researchers report online Aug. 1 Nature.
The study uses big data to explain long-standing research showing that a poor child’s loose social connections, such as to mentors or the parents of their wealthier friends, can help lift that child out of poverty, says Xi Song, Sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in this study.
“For people you know very well, with whom you have close relationships, you have very similar resources or social status,” says Song. “But what’s really going to help you get a job, let’s say … are the ones who have a weak bond with you.” That’s because people outside of a child’s immediate environment can give them options for the future that they do would otherwise never consider, such as B. attending a college or certain career paths.
In the study, Harvard University economist Raj Chetty and colleagues used data from approximately 72 million Facebook users aged 25 to 44 in the United States. On average, if a relatively poor child lives where they can make about the same number of rich friends as the average rich child in the United States, that poor child’s adult income would be 20 percent higher than would be expected without this network, the team found Celebration .
These cross-class friendships — what the researchers call economic connectedness — are “one of the strongest predictors of economic mobility yet identified,” Chetty said at a July 28 news conference.
The researchers looked at other measures of social capital, or the value of one’s relationships, including what the researchers call cohesiveness, or how close a friendship network was, and civic engagement, such as volunteering, which indicates involvement in community groups.
All three measures of social capital are important for different life outcomes, the team notes. For example, high cohesion is associated with longer life expectancy. But only economic connectedness showed an association with higher than expected earnings.
The team assessed socioeconomic status by looking at average income in a Facebook user’s neighborhood and self-reported educational attainment. The individuals were then divided into below-average and above-average income brackets.
In a second study, the researchers also identified the drivers of economic connectedness, referred to as “exposure” and “friending bias”. Nature. Exposure refers to the average number of wealthy people that a poor person comes into contact with in their daily life, e.g. B. at school, at work or in a religious organization. Friending bias refers to the rate at which poor people befriend wealthier individuals in those social spheres. High friending bias can arise from both people’s desire to hang out with like-minded people and structural barriers, such as being tracked in schools, Chetty noted.
About half of social separation in the United States results from lack of exposure, or segregation, the researchers found (SN: 2/8/22). Surprisingly, the other half comes from friendly bias. In other words, policies aimed at increasing exposure alone, such as B. bus transport of children to specific schools or affirmative action are not enough to facilitate economic connectivity, the team concludes.
So much effort has been made to integrate groups in the United States, and even in Chetty’s own group, says Bruce Sacerdote, an economist at Dartmouth University who co-wrote a perspective Nature about the study. This work suggests that “there may be simpler, less expensive things you can do to increase connectedness without, say, moving your entire family.”
For example, Lake Highlands High School in Texas has roughly equal percentages of students from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds, but high friending bias. Administrators and students recently identified the school’s architecture as the culprit. That is, the school houses three cafeterias, leading to students sorting themselves into the “appropriate” canteen based on social cliques. Architects are now working to create a single dining room where everyone can mingle, as well as more spaces for student interaction.
As part of the new research, the team released a public dataset that allows users to measure the extent of connections between rich and poor for every county, zip code, high school and college in the United States. The team hopes policymakers and school administrators can use this dataset to identify the types of classroom integration strategies that work best in local conditions.
There are smaller sets of data measuring social capital, says sociologist Brian Levy of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “The ability to quantify the overall effect nationwide is unique.”
Maintaining these connections — even after childhood is over — is key to breaking down friendship bias and improving economic outcomes for poorer people across the country, the researchers point out. As an example of the type of new program needed, they point to a nonprofit called Inner City Weightlifting, headquartered in Dorchester, Mass., whose mission is to connect people from different social worlds. The non-profit organization trains people from impoverished backgrounds to become personal fitness trainers and then connects them with better-off clients.
“In general, trainers and clients become friends,” says the company’s founder and CEO, Jon Feinman. He’s seen clients vouch for their coaches in court or pay their kids to attend expensive summer camps.
Bobby Fullard, 30, is a trainer at the nonprofit organization. He remembers one day a few years ago when a client at his gym messaged him on Instagram to ask if he would run with her on a Saturday. Fullard, who is black with tattoos and dreadlocks, reluctantly agreed.
“The most uncomfortable thing for me is talking to a white woman. I just don’t think they’ll ever understand my world,” says Fullard, who spent his teens and 20s in and out of prison. But he agreed to escape.
When Fullard showed up, the woman had brought a friend with her, another white woman. Fullard was doubly concerned. “I say two words every time I speak,” he recalls. But the client helped him feel comfortable, and the trio have been running together regularly ever since.
More recently, Fullard realized that what he really wanted was to be a carpenter. That’s why he recently started his own carpentry shop. To his first customers? These two running partners, he says.