Friendships, the key to upward mobility: research – The Hill

The story at a glance


  • Childhood friendships between individuals of different economic classes in the United States are significantly associated with adult economic mobility, according to new research published in Nature.

  • The findings are based on data from 21 billion Facebook accounts.

  • In the future, the researchers hope to conduct similar studies to determine if or how social networks affect political affiliations or health behaviors.

The networks of relationships a person develops over time, or a person’s social capital, can affect different facets of life, from education to health care.

To better understand what types of social capital are important for certain outcomes, a team of researchers conducted two studies assessing 21 billion Facebook friendships.

The results of these analyzes revealed that a higher share of friends with higher socioeconomic status (SES) among those with low SES “is one of the strongest predictors of upward income mobility. identified to date,” the authors wrote.

Defining this phenomenon as economic connectedness, the researchers showed that such friendships outweighed any other measure of social capital, such as social cohesion or cliques within networks and civic engagement (volunteering), which do not had no close link with economic mobility.

Notably, the data showed that “if children of low SES parents were to grow up in counties with comparable economic ties to the average child of high SES parents, their adult earnings would increase by 20% on average.

The researchers hypothesize that the lack of economic ties between certain societies may explain the relationships between upward economic mobility and racial segregation, as well as poverty rates and inequality.


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The data is compiled into a website that breaks down associations between social capital and outcomes by zip code, county, high school and college.

For example, in Sampson County, North Carolina, 23% of friends of individuals have high incomes, compared to 57.9% of friends in Santa Clara County, California. From 2016 to 2020, the median household income in Sampson County was $42,914, according to US Census data. In that same window, the median household income in Santa Clara County was $130,890.

Because Facebook friendships have been used as a proxy for real-life friendships rather than online networking, studies have not provided information on the effects of strictly online social networking.

To be included in the analyses, Facebook users had to have been active on the site at least once in the past 30 days and be between the ages of 25 and 44 on average. Individuals also had to have at least 100 US-based friends and have a residential zip code listed.

“Numerous theoretical studies have shown how relationships with more educated or wealthier people can be helpful in transferring information, shaping aspirations, and providing mentorship or job referrals,” the authors wrote.

In the study, the researchers defined SES on the average neighborhood income of individuals and any self-reported level of education attained.

Those with higher SES tend to be friends with other high SES people, while “a one percentile point increase in one’s own SES rank is associated with a 0.44 percentile point increase in SSE of his friends on average”.

Although the study showed that areas with high economic connectivity had positive causal effects on the potential upward mobility of children, the researchers cautioned that this connectivity may not be the best or most important measure of general social capital. .

The data showed that measures of network cohesion, for example, were more strongly associated with differences in life expectancy among low-income people in US counties.

Further research is needed to better understand how these social networks might influence political preferences or health behaviors.

Posted on August 01, 2022

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