Spotlight Exclusives

Cross-Class Friendships Can Be Key Driver of Economic Mobility

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

A massive new set of studies linking upward mobility with social capital—specifically how “economically connected” someone is with friends of different social and economic backgrounds—was hailed as a landmark work Wednesday at an online briefing hosted by the Brookings Institution.

Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam, a groundbreaking researcher and theorist on the impact of social capital, called the two papers, “a really big deal and it shows massive evidence, way more than we’re ever had before, that social capital has a broad range of consequences.”

Two of the principal authors of the study, Raj Chetty of Harvard’s Opportunity Insights program and Johannes Stroebel of the New York University Stern School of Business, outlined the top-line findings from the dataset, drawn from the social networks of 72.2 million users of Facebook between the ages of 25 and 44.

Chetty said the studies were aimed at getting at some of the reasons behind the findings of his previous work at Opportunity Insights which underlines the role that geography—specifically the neighborhoods children grow up in—has on economic opportunity.

“When we tried to answer the question of what are the drivers of economic mobility, the data led us to economic connectiveness,” Chetty said.

Stroebel said the research team looked at the impact of three separate types of social capital: economic connectiveness between high- and low-income individuals; the cohesiveness of a community, or the density of its social networks; and civic engagement, or the level of volunteerism and social activism.

While each of those activities were found to impact upward mobility in different ways, economic connectiveness was found to have the greatest affect. The bottom line: Forging more social relationships that cross class can be a powerful driver of economic mobility.

After the presentation by Chetty and Stroebel, a panel of experts, including Putnam and moderated by Brookings senior fellow Richard Reeves, generally lauded the studies as a major step forward in understanding the role of social capital in driving economic mobility.

But both Putnam and Brookings fellow Camille Busette expressed concern that the data set did not offer racial profiles of the Facebook users. “The omission of race is really glaring here and very problematic,” Busette said, expressing concern that lay readers will take away from the studies the mistaken impression that, “oh, race doesn’t really matter.”

Chetty agreed the further work is needed to better understand the role of race in social capital systems that may impact economic mobility but said that data was not available from Facebook for these papers. “We are not able to look at race directly in this study because of data limitations, but we are hoping that is something we can do going forward,” Chetty said, acknowledging the issue is a “central question going forward.”

Panelists suggested a number of potential public or social policy responses based on the findings. Putnam, who for years has advocated more attention to the impact extracurricular activities can have on school-age kids, said the studies strongly endorsed that view, as well as the cross-class relationships that can be forged at houses of worship.

Scott Winship, the director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the studies supported giving more attention to policies that support more school choice, early education for low-income children, and improving test scores for at-risk students rather than diminishing the importance of the SAT and ACT.

“On education, it seems like we ought to be thinking about whether there are better or worse ways to create economic connectiveness for students,” Winship said.

Chetty encouraged viewers to look at data from their own communities on the open data portal for the studies.

A recording of the Brookings event can be found here.




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