I need more poor friends

This was two weeks ago, but in case you didn’t see it, super-important research coming out from Raj Chetty on social mobility.  The fascinating key insight– wealthier friends are a key engine of social mobility for poor Americans.  Nice summary in the Upshot (great graphics, too, you really should check it out, so… gift link)

Over the last four decades, the financial circumstances into which children have been born have increasingly determined where they have ended up as adults. But an expansive new study, based on billions of social media connections, has uncovered a powerful exception to that pattern that helps explain why certain places offer a path out of poverty.

For poor children, living in an area where people have more friendships that cut across class lines significantly increases how much they earn in adulthood, the new research found.

The study, published Monday in Nature, analyzed the Facebook friendships of 72 million people, amounting to 84 percent of U.S. adults aged 25 to 44.

Previously, it was clear that some neighborhoods were much better than others at removing barriers to climbing the income ladder, but it wasn’t clear why. The new analysis — the biggest of its kind — found the degree to which the rich and poor were connected explained why a neighborhood’s children did better later in life, more than any other factor.

The effect was profound. The study found that if poor children grew up in neighborhoods where 70 percent of their friends were wealthy — the typical rate of friendship for higher-income children — it would increase their future incomes by 20 percent, on average.

These cross-class friendships — what the researchers called economic connectedness — had a stronger impact than school quality, family structure, job availability or a community’s racial composition. The people you know, the study suggests, open up opportunities, and the growing class divide in the United States closes them off.

Also, David Brooks spoke with Chetty and has some nice thoughts on it all and the power of friendship, in general:

When I spoke with Chetty last week about the study, I asked him: What is it exactly about these friendships that is so powerful?

He said the data doesn’t enable us to answer that question. But we can easily speculate that some of it must be informational. Kids whose parents have already been to college can tell their poorer friends how to play the college admissions game, where to sign up for the SATs and so on. A lot of it, too, must be connections. Affluent people can connect you to the right people to help you get a plum job or into the best schools.

But there’s got to be more to it than that. Chetty mentioned there’s a dosage effect. Kids who move into these economically diverse neighborhoods at age 2 tend to do better than those who move in at 14. Nobody is thinking about SATs or job openings at 2.

I would point to the transformational power of friendship itself. That’s because your friends are not just by your side; they get inside you. If you want to help people change, help them change their friendships.

We already know from the work by Yale’s Nicholas Christakis and others that behavior change happens in friend networks. If people in your friend network quit smoking, then you’re more likely to quit smoking. If your friend gains weight, you are more likely to gain weight. Heck, if one of your friend’s friends — who lives far away and whom you have never met — gains weight, then you’re more likely to gain weight, too…

Our friends shape what we see as normal. If our friends decide that being 15 pounds heavier is normal and acceptable, then we’ll probably regard being 15 pounds heavier as normal, too.

This is the key point. Your friends strongly influence how you perceive reality. First, they strongly influence how you see yourself. It’s very hard to measure your own worth, your own competence, unless people you admire and respect see you as worthy, see you as competent. Plus, if your friends say, “We’re all smart, talented people,” you’ll begin to see yourself that way, too.

Second, your friends shape how you see the world. A few decades ago, a theorist named James J. Gibson pioneered the theory of “affordances.” The basic idea is that what you see in a situation is shaped by what you are capable of doing in a situation. Dennis Proffitt of the University of Virginia has demonstrated this theory in a bunch of ways: People who are less physically fit perceive hills to be steeper than people who are fit, because they find it harder to walk up them. People carrying heavy backpacks perceive steeper hills than people without them.

The phenomenon works socioeconomically, too. Kids who grew up with college-educated parents walk onto the Princeton campus and see a different campus than kids who have never been around a college at all. Without even thinking about it, more-affluent kids might communicate to their less-affluent friends ways of seeing that make such places look less alien, less imposing, more accessible.

Anyway, it was interesting to think of my own life in reference to all of this.  Honestly, virtually all my friends are college-professors or highly-successful, educated professionals.  I don’t have any friends that are truly economically struggling.  I can think of one friend who’s not a college graduate, but he, unsurprisingly, lives in my middle-class neighborhood, and has a successful flooring business. 

And, realistically, the title of this post aside, I’m unlike to add less-educated, financially struggling friends in the future.  The hope, though, is that, overall, my neighborhood really is quite socio-economically and racially diverse (here’s the demographics for the elementary my kids all attended) and that means that my kids are those wealthier friends that help serve as engines of social mobility.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to I need more poor friends

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    How you conclude the post is exactly why we need to require every American who turns 18-20 to give one year to his country. That would be dedicated to public service and might include work such as building roads, working with school children who need tutoring, helping people who need help of various kinds, even military training of some sort and more. They would be in groups who work together in whatever chore they choose of the offered jobs and would be put in groups designed to mix up backgrounds. Experts can work out the details. That would be a step forward in introducing Americans to their fellow Americans.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: