Friendships with rich people may help lift children out of poverty

Forming connections to richer peers is linked to greater earnings later in life, researchers say

children eating lunch at school

Facilitating cross-class friendships among children can require creative thinking, such as breaking up social cliques in the cafeteria or intentionally mixing richer and poorer kids during school activities, researchers say.

Will & Deni McIntyre/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images Plus

Relationships can have a profound influence on a life, from the schools that people attend to the jobs they land. But teasing out how those connections impact a person’s economic status is tricky. Now, an analysis of billions of Facebook connections suggests that childhood friendships between wealthier and poorer individuals is linked to increased earnings later in life for poor children, researchers report online August 1 in 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 their wealthier friends’ parents, can help lift that child out of poverty, says Xi Song, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved with this research.

“For people you know very well, with whom you have strong ties, you have very similar resources or social statuses,” Song says. “But what will really help you find a job, say … are those with a weak tie to you.” That’s because people outside a child’s immediate orbit can show them options for the future they may otherwise never consider, such as attending college or certain career tracks.

In the study, economist Raj Chetty of Harvard University and colleagues used data on roughly 72 million Facebook users ages 25 to 44 in the United States. If a relatively poor child lives where they can make roughly 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 on average than would be expected without that network, the team found.

Those friendships across class — what the researchers call economic connectedness — are “one of the strongest predictors of economic mobility that anyone has identified to date,” Chetty said in a July 28 news conference.

The researchers studied other measures of social capital, or the value of one’s relationships, including what the researchers call cohesiveness, or how tight-knit a friendship network was, and civic engagement such as volunteering, which indicated one’s involvement in community groups.

All three measures of social capital are important for different life outcomes, the team notes. For instance, high cohesiveness is linked to higher life expectancy. But only economic connectedness showed a link to higher-than-expected earnings.

The team gauged socioeconomic status by looking at the average income in a Facebook user’s residential neighborhood and self-reported educational attainment. Individuals were then divided into below-median and above-median income groups.

The researchers also identified the drivers of economic connectedness, dubbed “exposure” and “friending bias,” in a second study in Nature. Exposure refers to the average number of wealthy people that a poor person comes into contact with in their daily lives, such as at school, work or a religious organization. Friending bias refers to the rate at which poor people befriend wealthier individuals within those social spheres. High friending bias can arise from both people’s desire to hang out with others like themselves and structural barriers, such as tracking in schools, Chetty noted.

Roughly half of the social disconnect in the United States arises from a lack of exposure, or segregation, the researchers found (SN: 2/8/22). Surprisingly, the other half arises from friending bias. In other words, policies aimed at increasing exposure alone, such as busing children to certain schools or affirmative action policies, are insufficient to facilitate economic connectedness, the team concludes.

So much effort in the United States, and even Chetty’s own group, has gone toward intensive efforts to integrate groups, says Bruce Sacerdote, an economist at Dartmouth University who cowrote a perspective in Nature on the studies. This work suggests that “there may be simpler, lower cost things you can do to increase connectedness without, say, moving your entire family.”

For instance, Lake Highlands High School in Texas has roughly the same percentage of students from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds but high friending bias. Administrators and students recently identified the school’s architecture as a culprit. That is, the school houses three cafeterias, which caused students to sort themselves into the “appropriate” lunchroom based on social cliques. Architects are now working to create a single lunchroom for everyone to mix together along with more spaces for students to interact.  

As part of the new research, the team released a public dataset that allows users to gauge the level of connections between rich and poor people for every county, ZIP code, high school and college in the United States. The team hopes that policy makers and school administrators can use this dataset to identify the sorts of class integration policies that will work best given local conditions. 

Smaller datasets exist to measure social capital, says sociologist Brian Levy of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “The ability to quantify the overall effect across the nation is unique.”

Building these connections — even after childhood ends — is key to reducing friendship bias and improving economic outcomes for poorer people across the country, the researchers emphasize. As an example of the type of new program that’s needed, they point to a nonprofit called Inner City Weightlifting, headquartered in Dorchester, Mass., whose mission is  connecting people from different social worlds. The nonprofit trains people from impoverished backgrounds as personal gym trainers and then connects them to more well-heeled clientele.

“Generally trainers and clients become friends,” says the company’s founder and CEO Jon Feinman. He has seen clients vouch for their trainers in court or pay for their kids to attend expensive summer camps.

Bobby Fullard, 30, is a trainer with the nonprofit. He remembers a day a couple of years ago when a white client at his gym messaged him on Instagram to ask if he would run with her on a Saturday. Fullard, who is Black and sports tattoos and dreadlocks, agreed reluctantly.

“The most uncomfortable thing to me is talking to a white woman. I just don’t think they are ever going to understand my world,” says Fullard, who spent his teens and 20s in and out of jail. But he agreed to the run.

When Fullard showed up, the woman had brought along a friend, another white woman. Fullard was doubly anxious. “I’m saying 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 what he really wanted to be is a carpenter. So he launched his own carpentry business. Among his first clients? Those two running partners, he says.  

Sujata Gupta is the social sciences writer and is based in Burlington, Vt.

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