New Orleans Economist Raj Chetty, his crew and colleagues, have been making big news in that subset of folks who care about social mobility and social capital, which are kind of fancy names for moving up the income ladder and how you successfully navigate in the real world or are stuck along the way. His first major data crunch found that Black and Native American males have lower rates of upward mobility than other demographic groups. His new study, rolled out in Nature recently, finds that connections created between different types of people across income classes and status was the strongest driver of economic upward mobility for lower income kids.
Chetty and the gang came to these conclusions by crunching Facebook data, and a huge pile of it, analyzing 21 billion friendships in the social networks of 72.2 million Facebook users between the ages of 25 and 44, and comparing that with Census demographic and income data. I know as soon as I say, Facebook, skepticism goes rampant, and I’m with you on that. This data would seem to prove more about the strength of weak links than anything else, and that’s Facebook’s specialty. Nonetheless Chetty and his people found that when they looked at “friending” patterns, individuals who were going back and forth across classes and not just hunkered down in their own income, racial, and ethnic conclaves, became more upwardly mobile.
All that is very interesting and important, which is why the study is being touted by academics who study these things, but also by community development folks, especially those who promote mixed-income developments. This has been a fight in the trenches for years and is often blocked by suburban zoning restrictions and covenants against multi-unit housing and subsidized housing programs in their backyards. The Chetty work puts some powerful ammunition behind their arguments.
Before we do too much happy dancing, it’s important to understand that Chetty’s conclusions about upward mobility are not absolutes, but comparisons. He and this team are essentially saying that these cross-class exchanges, or what he calls “economic connectedness” are better determinants than their two closest competitors in the race to move forward: civic engagement and social cohesion. My longtime colleague, john powell, writes excitedly about how Chetty’s data work undergirds his work on “bridging” across race and class, and “belonging”, joined by the Redress Movement, dealing with segregation, and others.
Anything that contributes to more equity, including “friending”, we’re down for, but honestly, it’s hard for me to believe that civic engagement isn’t more of a guarantee of mobility, but I’m biased since that’s my life’s work and, as I said, I’m skeptical of how much the Facebook data really proves, with all due respect and regards for Chetty and his team. Sadly, none of these social indices of mobility really solve the problem of barriers to mobility, discrimination, and inequity, because these problems are systemic and not something that individuals can remedy no matter how many friends they make on Facebook. We need big plans and programs for big problems, and this is one of the biggest we have now.