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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 31, No.2 (Oct-Dec 2022)
john powell and Eloy Toppin
This August, 2022, Raj Chetty and his team of researchers published exciting and promising new findings in the field of social capital and network ties. Specifically, Chetty et al. have demonstrated, through an extensive analysis of Facebook friend connections, the importance of cross-class connectivity to the ability to climb up the socioeconomic ladder. The insights that this research illuminates is significant for several reasons.
First, the new information published in these two latest papers confirms what the field has long known and what we at the Othering and Belonging Institute (OBI) have long advocated for. Yet the papers make the novel contribution of backing up these established positions with rigorously collected and analyzed data that, prior to this study, the field was unable to take advantage of. Chetty’s team gathered and ran the numbers on 21 billion Facebook friendships to further our understanding of social networks. From the work of Robert Sampson to that of Robert Putnam and to studies like the well-known mail drop experiment, social capital research has provided evidence in support of the deep importance of relationships and their facilitation of resources. Chetty’s latest work validates social capital theory and affirms that social networks matter.
The key finding of this research is that the most significant factor in upward mobility is what the Chetty team has termed economic connectedness. They define this term as “the degree of interaction between low- and high-income people.” In this revelation, they state that it is in fact bridging social capital, as opposed to bonding, that generates the largest impact. Although racial and economic segregation persist, as this reporting again confirms, it is when social interactions occur across class that people from the bottom rungs of economic wellbeing have a real chance at elevating their socioeconomic status. The practice of bridging is a concept for which we have tirelessly advocated and a core principle that guides our work at OBI. Bridging has the potential to help heal deep social divides and to help us overcome this period of fragmentation and de-humanization and rising authoritarianism through a commitment to reaching across difference and a willingness to transform ourselves through an openness to see and hear the other. This process does not require agreement. Our acknowledging another’s humanity does not entail our acknowledging that their views are correct. Chetty’s research here shows another dimension of the tangible and material effects of bridging – that it leads to a greater likelihood of upward mobility and increased income over one’s life.
This fact brings us to our next point, which hinges on another crucial finding by Chetty. Consider belonging, which is another central precept at OBI. The concept is multidimensional. It involves not just interpersonal connection but also the right structural arrangement. This point is prompted by Chetty’s finding that the other types of social capital that the research team investigated – social cohesion and civic engagement – did not prove to have the same impact that economic connectedness demonstrated. This is not to say that these types of social capital are unimportant. As mentioned above, interpersonal bridging in the form of joining civic associations and volunteering in one’s community can help to ameliorate contentious schisms and make collective identity more salient than exclusionary identities. Chetty shows that there are some connections that promote economic mobility and some that do not. Importantly, structural arrangements such as how we organize educational institutions and how we build neighborhoods are important in either enhancing or depressing these connections. These insights are equally true for belonging mobility. To put it differently, interactions happen through structures.
Not only does this latest research confirm much about social capital theory, it also raises further questions and encourages new directions of study. One such question is the level of disaggregation of the present data. Past research that Chetty conducted, namely his study entitled “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective,” found that Black American and Native American males have lower rates of upward mobility than members of other demographic groups. This includes a gap between Black boys and girls. The current study concludes that while past work showed that poverty and racial segregation have a strong impact on upward mobility, the present findings provide evidence that economic connectedness still powerfully predicts upward mobility after controlling for other factors. These two conclusions taken together would suggest that if Black and Native boys have lower upward mobility and when race is held constant economic connectedness predicts upward mobility, then Black and Native boys have fewer cross-class connections. Subsequent research should dig further into this topic as well as seek to achieve the granularity of examining intersectional differences of race and gender. This also suggests that our situatedness within structures matter and that this situatedness is gender and race sensitive.
Another inquiry that the research raises is the extent to which the present research calls attention to the structure of economic opportunity. For instance, Chetty and his team state in the present research that “differences in economic connectedness can explain why racially segregated communities and areas with high poverty rates have lower rates of upward mobility.” However, this seems to be more of an outcome of the economic structure than an explanation for it. This reminds us of a quotation from Stuart Hall in an essay in which he contemplates the differences in economic vs. sociological explanations for society’s inequities. He writes that “racial structures cannot be understood adequately outside the framework of quite specific sets of economic relations” (Selected Writings on Race and Difference, 2021). Applied to this research, we must ask to what degree the exclusion of the racially marginalized from cross-class connectedness structures our system of economic opportunity itself.
Additionally, we may ask how we can reform our structures so that opportunity is available to more people instead of improving access to exclusionary social circles. In addition to the economic connectedness, are there other ways of supporting mobility that might be accessible to a larger number of people? Could a universal basic income or a jobs guarantee be a solution? A recent Washington Post article (”Unions are on a roll. And they unite a divided nation,” by E.J. Dionne Jr, Sept 4, 2022) points to the growing popularity of labor unions, which increase multiracial solidarity, act as a form of civic engagement, and redistribute resources. Solutions that democratize the economy should be on the table as we think through the implications of Chetty’s research. These should be explored in tandem with the important insights highlighted in Chetty’s work. And of course, how do we better understand and address these issues for Black and Native American males? Are there other outliers?
On the whole, Chetty has once again produced extraordinary research that not only validates some of our most prominent social theories, he has also given us direction toward eliminating some of society’s most persistent inequalities. Chetty concludes these latest papers by advocating for institutional reform, stating that zoning laws and other changes of this sort can overcome cross-class disconnection. We fervently second this call. At OBI, we have been advancing just these types of reforms, from our work on mapping single-family zoning to our opportunity maps and inclusiveness index to just-transition initiatives. We applaud Chetty on the progress made in this research and enthusiastically look forward to how this work can be used to achieve a world of greater opportunity and belonging for all.
john powell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor at UC-Berkeley School of Law and Director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC-Berkeley. He is also a member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors. Eloy Toppin (email@example.com) is a staff researcher at the Othering and Belonging Institute.