Over the last 40 years, the upward mobility of Americans has steadily declined. The notion that anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough has slowly unraveled against a reality of wealth inequality, with the rising cost of living and stagnant wages leading to the calcification of class status. It’s not great! But a new study does suggest there is an exception. Americans have a weapon in the fight against wealth inequality. And that weapon is called friendship.
A new study in Nature analyzed 84 percent of the U.S. population via their Facebook accounts – about 72 million people. This study found that poor children who live in areas with friendships that transcend class and income can make significantly more in adulthood than poor children who grow up in neighborhoods with no such friendships. As the New York Times put it, “the study found that if poor children grew up in neighborhoods where 70 percent of their friends were wealthy — the typical rate of friendship for higher-income children — it would increase their future incomes by 20 percent, on average.”
In fact, these friendships — the researchers call it “economic connectedness” — proved to have a greater impact than stuff like education, family or job availability. In other words, it is literally not what you know but who you know.
The idea that this alone can solve wealth inequality is a little misguided. All the data shows us is that poor kids in areas where they can make friendships with people who have more money often end up doing better financially down the road. That much we know. What we don’t know is how to foster those sorts of friendships — especially in areas where kids have fewer opportunities to interact with people of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
It’s also worth asking something this survey doesn’t, and would be difficult to measure anyway: how do these friendships impact the lives of the rich kids? It makes sense that poor kids would have access to more financial opportunities if they have connections with rich friends. But it would stand to reason that these rich friends also benefit, perhaps in ways that can’t be measured financially. The power of friendship cuts both ways, after all.