August 12, 2022
In a recent Next City story about Dallas public schools, I found a bit of hope. Dallas public schools are getting real traction from their efforts to tear down the social barriers that separate rich and poor, BIPOC and white students from learning together. In a program they have called “50-50 ” schools, they have created, in a highly economically and racially segregated city, schools that “have no attendance boundaries; [Where] students are admitted by lottery, with some seats open to families who live outside of the school district; [Where]half of the students admitted must live in one of Dallas’ socioeconomically disadvantaged census blocks, while the other half are drawn from more affluent areas; [Where] the district provides transportation to students within its boundaries….”
The heartening news is that District leaders “are finding that these deliberately diverse schools are so popular…” that they are having to grow the number of schools in this program more rapidly. And that these schools are so popular that “as a group, these 50/50 schools draw thousands of applicants and have proven so popular that the district plans to open 11 more over the next three years…” gives us hope that perhaps we can reverse this nation’s descent into an economic black hole of inequality.
In light of a new study (Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility) which recently appeared in Nature Magazine the key words here are “deliberately diverse.” Words are key because the study gave us new evidence that if you are concerned about the growing divide between the rich and the poor in our national efforts like Dallas’s 50-50 Schools need more attention and replication.
The study was conducted by a team of scholars led by Raj Chetty, the William A. Ackman Professor of Public Economics at Harvard University, who set out to better understand why there is so little economic mobility; why if you are a child raised in a home with little financial resources you are more and more likely to no improvement in your adult years. They were focused on understanding why our nation was leaving so many stuck in generations of poverty and economic struggle.
Using data from Facebook they were able to study the “connectedness between different types of people, such as those with low versus high socioeconomic status (SES); social cohesion, such as the extent of cliques in friendship networks; and civic engagement, such as rates of volunteering…” to understand how these related to economic mobility.
Their conclusion, after analyzing Facebook data from more than 21 billion friendships is quite clear. Who your friends are and who you socially interact with matters. “The share of high-SES friends among individuals with low SES—which we term economic connectedness—is among the strongest predictors of upward income mobility identified to date… If children with low-SES parents were to grow up in counties with economic connectedness comparable to that of the average child with high-SES parents, their incomes in adulthood would increase by 20% on average. Differences in economic connectedness can explain well-known relationships between upward income mobility and racial segregation, poverty rates, and inequality…We find that the degree to which people with low and high SES are friends with each other (which we term economic connectedness (EC)) is strongly associated with upward income mobility…” (emphasis added)
And the economic benefit is quite startling. “Children who grow up in counties where low-SES individuals have more high-SES friends tend to have much higher rates of upward mobility. As an example, low-SES individuals have a much larger share of high-SES friends in Minneapolis (49%, corresponding to an EC of 0.98) compared with Indianapolis (32%, EC of 0.65). Correspondingly, children who grow up in low-income families have much higher incomes in adulthood in Minneapolis than in Indianapolis. In Minneapolis, children reach the 43rd percentile of the household income distribution on average at age 35 years (roughly US $34,300 in 2015), compared with the 34th percentile ($24,700) in Indianapolis.”
What matters is relationships not just proximity. “These results imply that it is growing up in an area with high E(conomic) C(onnectedness)—rather than just around high-income people—that leads to better prospects for upward mobility….Greater income inequality is associated with less EC, and that relationship largely explains the negative correlation between inequality and mobility. In short, a lack of economic connectedness may be a key reason that upward mobility is lower in areas with larger Black populations and greater inequality.”
The Chetty team’s data and analysis combined with stories like that coming out of Dallas leave me hopeful that we can build a better future for all. It gives me hope that we can overcome the social forces, as described to the New York Times by Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies inequality, that work to maintain the unequal status quo. “The pressure that parents feel to try to give their kids a competitive advantage is amplified when society is unequal and there’s more to be lost. Our society is structured in ways that discourage these kinds of cross-class friendships from happening, and many parents, often white, are making choices about where to live and what extracurriculars to put their kids into that make those connections less likely to happen.”
Megan McArdle, writing for the Washington Post, provided further context to why the Chetty team’s findings are important. “Disadvantaged people don’t frequent the same places as the privileged — on average, they go to different schools and colleges (if they go to college at all), attend different churches, join different sporting leagues. But even if you could somehow equalize those things, the researchers suggest that would close only about half the gap, because of friending bias — the propensity of people to mostly befriend others like them.”
Robert Putnam, the political scientist at Harvard who wrote “Bowling Alone” and “Our Kids,” told New York Times that the study’s findings are “a big deal because I think what we lack in America today, and what’s been dropping catastrophically over the last 50 years, is what I call ‘bridging social capital’ — informal ties that lead us to people who are unlike us…And it’s a really big deal because it provides a number of avenues or clues by which we might begin to move this country in a better direction.”
Chetty, in comments he made to NPR‘s Planet Money, left me seeing hope and also seeing the work we still have to do. “Even if you somehow — and we’re nowhere close to doing this — solve the economic segregation problem by perfectly integrating every school, every college, every zip code in America, so that they’re all perfectly balanced by income, you would still have 50% of the social disconnect between the poor and the rich left because friending bias remains…there’s much that the government could do to economically integrate America, including building affordable housing in high-income areas, helping low-income kids go to high-income schools, and thinking deliberately about how to foster friendships in various institutions. That, this new research suggests, would go a long way towards revitalizing the American Dream.”
We do not have, in this research or anywhere else, a magic bullet. But I do find hope. If we care about equality and equity there are things we can do that can move us in the right direction. These are things that require some effort but which can move the needle toward a fairer and more just community. We just have to do the work. I don’t think that is too much to ask. Is it?