Economic mobility involves more than material benefits and moving up the income ladder.
Community-level friendships between lower- and higher-income individuals that create economic connectedness are the foundation for economic mobility.
These cross-class friendships boost upward mobility by helping young people develop the knowledge, skills, and social networks they need to pursue opportunity and human flourishing.
That’s the main conclusion of a study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his research team of zip code level information on 72.2 million U.S. Facebook users, 84% of all American adults between the ages of 25 and 44.
These friendships are the strongest available predictor of upward mobility for low-income children, more than school quality, job availability, family structure, or a community’s racial makeup.
Schools can foster cross-class connections that lead to economic mobility and greater opportunity in three ways.
The first is from an analysis of high schools in the study.
Large high schools generally have a smaller share of cross-class friendships since they have less mixing and more income-related student groups. So do more racially diverse schools and those with high Advanced Placement enrollment and gifted and talented classes. On the other hand, smaller and less racially diverse schools have more friendships between students with different class backgrounds.
Large high schools can nurture cross-class relationships by assigning students to smaller and intentionally diverse “houses” or “hives.” Their cafeterias, libraries, and science labs can be organized to mix students when they socialize or learn. Extracurricular activities can be structured to blend students from diverse backgrounds.
Public charter schools are a second example.
My work colleague Jeff Dean analyzed the 214 charter high schools in the study’s public database. On average, these charter schools perform better than 80% of traditional public schools in creating cross-class friendships, raising questions to research.
For example, do the autonomy and community-building features of public charter schools contribute to this? Can their results be explained simply by their smaller size? Are there lessons learned that district public schools should follow?
I believe a third way to promote civil society and cross-class friendships is by expanding career pathways education and training programs.
These partnership programs acquaint learners with employers and workforce demands, engaging students and adult mentors from diverse classes and backgrounds. They weave together education, training, employment, support services, and job placement, spanning K-12, postsecondary, and workforce development.
They include a wide range of models: apprenticeships and internships; career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and college; career academies; boot camps for acquiring specific knowledge or skills; and staffing, placement and other support services for job seekers.
There are statewide partnership programs created by governors and legislators from both political parties, like Delaware Pathways by Democrat Jack Markell and Tennessee’s Drive to 55 Alliance by Republican Bill Haslam. Similar programs exist in politically diverse states like California, Colorado, Texas, and Indiana.
There are local partnership programs between K-12, employers, and civic partners, like 3-D Education in Atlanta; YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans; Washington, D.C.’s CityWorks D.C.; and Cristo Rey, 38 Catholic high schools in 24 states.
Finally, organizations like Pathways to Prosperity Network, P-Tech Schools, and Linked Learning Alliance create regional or local partnerships and provide advice and other support to those creating pathways programs.
These programs have five common features: an academic curriculum linked with labor market needs leading to a recognized credential and decent income; career exposure and work, including engagement with and supervision by adults; advisers helping participants make informed choices, ensuring they complete the program; a written civic compact among employers, trade associations and community partners; and supportive local, state and federal policies that make these programs possible.
These programs are successful.
The federal Administration for Children and Families Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse reviewed more than 8,000 research studies identifying 221 pathways interventions, concluding that 38% of the interventions improved outcomes in at least one domain of interest. Twenty-seven percent of the examined interventions improved employment, 24% increased earnings, and 14% reduced the use of public benefits.
These programs create new social networks and information sources that shape a young person’s expectations and aspirations. Teachers, coaches, and other mentors and supporters establish relationships with young people that shape their aspirations and behaviors and show them worlds and opportunities they’ve not imagined. Over time, this combination of new connections and information have a powerful snowball effect.
Cross-class friendships form the basis for improving individual life prospects and advancing human flourishing. These friendships place young people on a trajectory to social and economic well-being, informed citizenship, and civic responsibility. They help lay a foundation for adult success and a lifetime of opportunity. That’s good for individuals and our society.
Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor to the Walton Family Foundation education program and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy. This commentary was provided to the News-Press by The Center Square, a nonprofit dedicated to journalism.