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Having rich friends improves the economic potential of poor children, according to millions of relationships on Facebook

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If a child living in a low-income household grows up in an area where there is regular exchange and relationship between people of different socioeconomic status, between rich and poor, their economic level is more likely to increase with increasing age increases. That’s the main conclusion Harvard researcher Raj Chetty came to after analyzing data from 70 million Facebook users ages 25 to 44 in the United States. The study is published today by the journal Nature.

Chetty coined the term economic connectivity to measure the degree of relationship between those of high and those of lower economic status. This factor is one of the measures of the so-called social capital, which most affects social mobility, the ability to climb the pyramid. Connectivity can affect aspirations, access to information, and employment opportunities. The study suggests that this factor may be more critical to social mobility than racial segregation or income inequality. If a low-income child grows up in an area where economic connectivity is similar to that of high-status children, their median future income would increase by an average of 20%.

Facebook gave Chetty the data of 21,000 million friendship relationships of its users for analysis

“We all know that the friends we make are important in the future,” says Esteban Moro, a researcher at Carlos III University and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Connection Science. As he explains, this theory has always been difficult to measure because it didn’t know who the whole world’s friends were, “but it’s the first time data on social relationships has been used at an individual level by so many millions of people.” People”. “They confirmed that there’s a big correlation, which is a key factor, although the conclusion isn’t that we all go out and make rich friends,” he adds. Facebook gave Chetty anonymous data from 21,000 million friendship relationships of its users for analysis.

In a second analysis, based on these results, Raj Chetty and his collaborators set out to find out what factors drive this economic connectivity. As this Harvard economist and social mobility expert explains, there are two fundamental variables: prejudice against contact and friendship. Exposure refers to the extent to which students, for example, have a certain proximity to people with an economic status different from their own. If they attend a school where there are only other children with potential, this exposure is much lower (or zero) than in a center where students of different purchasing power are mixed. The study concludes that this exposure determines 50% of economic connectivity and social disconnection.

The other 50% are biased when it comes to making friends. This means that although students in a school come from families with different economic levels, children with high purchasing power may prefer to interact with their peers rather than others, and vice versa. In this case, even if there were no economic separation in the school, since there was no interaction between them, there would be no economic connection either. In other words, for that connectivity to happen there must necessarily be friendship and interaction between rich kids and poor kids, but according to Moro, “Unfortunately, even when you’re exposed, you don’t talk to people who are very different from you.” “

50% of economic connectivity is determined by contacts (Map A) and the other 50% by bias in friendships (Map C).
50% of economic connectivity is determined by contacts (Map A) and the other 50% by bias in friendships (Map C). Harvard University / Nature

For that reason, Chetty advises regulators and lawmakers not only to focus on exposing or ending financially segregated schools, but also to address friendship bias, as it’s just as important to ending the disengagement.

During his presentation of the study, Chetty gave some examples of schools forming “beehives,” or small groups in which children need to interact to foster friendly relationships between students from diverse backgrounds. The key is “how many of those encounters turn into friendships,” says Moro, who believes “this will change the way we understand how important social relationships can be for individuals, institutions and cities.”

“In the US, there are regions of greater and lesser inequality, but the patterns are similar”

Raj Chetty, Harvard University

Mentioning the possibility that the conclusions would be different in a less unequal society than the United States, Professor Chetty points out that he doesn’t think that applying the same methodology elsewhere would yield large differences : “In the United States, there are such regions of greater and lesser inequality, and yet the patterns are similar.” In other words, the fact that these factors impeding economic connectivity also exist in those with greater economic and social equality not disappearing is in itself an example of how this would not be the case in other countries either.

“I think there is a universal part. In an egalitarian society, social capital shouldn’t be important, but it is,” adds Esteban Moro, who also concedes that it’s “probably a bit tighter” in the US. He agrees that there is “a trend (worldwide) to use friends because they are sources of trust”, recalling that Spain is in fact “one of the places where more people get jobs thanks to friendships” : half of them workers, according to 2015 data.

The study data only includes users between the ages of 25 and 44, so the sample doesn’t seem entirely representative, but Chetty defends that it represents 84% ​​of the population in that age group: “It’s a good place to start.” [la investigación de este asunto]“.

To perform this comprehensive analysis of big data, Thanks to data from Facebook, the research group led by Professor Chetty compared every zip code, every institute and every university in the USA. This information will be available on everyone’s website from today share capital. When asked about its extrapolation to other countries such as Spain, Chetty refers to a database that was used to analyze similar issues Atlas of Possibilitiesa project of the Felipe González Foundation and the Cotec Foundation that does not use social networks but the State Tax Administration.

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