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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Rich kid, poor kid

Extracurriculars give lower-income students a chance to build friendships with more affluent students -- if they attend the same schools.

Upward mobility is a matter of who you know, conclude the authors of a newly published study on social capital. (See the data here.) "Economic connectedness" is a key factor in determining who prospers and who doesn't.

“Growing up in a community connected across class lines improves kids’ outcome and gives them a better shot at rising out of poverty,” Harvard economist Raj Chetty, one of the study’s four principal authors, told the New York Times, reports David Leonhardt.

There seem to be three main mechanisms by which cross-class friendships can increase a person’s chances of escaping poverty, Chetty told me.
The first is raised ambition: Social familiarity can give people a clearer sense of what’s possible. The second is basic information, such as how to apply to college and for financial aid. The third is networking, such as getting a recommendation for an internship.

Just living in the same community or attending the same school isn't enough. Young people need to interact. Do the kids from lower-income families try out for the school play, march in the band, sign up for robotics?

Churches with diverse memberships "shine" when it comes to fostering cross-class friendships, he writes. Sports also can connect young people, if affluent families haven't moved their children to "travel teams."

The study used a Facebook data set with 72 million users.

The New York Times' main story downplays the role of family, tweets Brad Wilcox (@BradWilcoxIFS) of the very pro-marriage Institute for Family Studies. After economic connectedness, Chetty finds the biggest predictor of upward mobility is living in a neighborhood with fewer single-parent households.

Scott Winship (@swinshi), who directs Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, points to The Wealth of Relations, which analyzed a 2018 paper by Chetty and his team. "They found that black men had stronger upward mobility the more low-income black fathers there were in their childhood neighborhood, he writes. "This was true regardless of whether someone’s own father was present, suggesting that even the family cohesion of other black children in the neighborhood affected them."

I wrote Hard Work, High Hopes for Fordham's Education for Upward Mobility conference in 2014. All three high schools I profiled try to prepare students "for going to a college where classmates will be more affluent and a lot whiter than their neighborhood friends," I wrote.

Chicago's Providence St. Mel, a low-tuition school with an all-black enrollment, raises money from donors to fund "Summer of a Lifetime (SOAL)."

Sheila Foster, now a teacher at the school, remembers learning archery, horseback riding, canoeing, and kayaking at a Minnesota camp. Twelfth-grader Jessica Bailey studied theater and classical civilization at Oxford. “My drama teacher was an actor. She called in a dramaturge to work on the script we were doing. We did a workshop at the Globe Theatre.” Jessica made friends from Lebanon, the United Arab Republics, the Philippines, and Cambodia.

Jessica was wearing a polo shirt advertising the previous year's musical, Fiddler on the Roof. An all-black high school did Fiddler? “We thought it was a little odd at first, but it came out great!” says Jessica. “I was Fruma!”

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