When I was young, I spent most of my time with friends. As a latchkey kid, I was told to get outside in the morning and wouldn’t return until dinner or after – depending on whether my mom was working that night. As I got older, I hung out with friends after school, after practice or after work – whatever would get me out of my trailer home.
When I went off to college, the number one activity outside of class and studying was partying with friends. The same pattern held true as I moved to New York as a young man – or more accurately a young guy.
I didn’t think about it much at the time but most of my friends – particularly as I got older – were from a higher socioeconomic background than I was.
Recently several friends sent me this article from the New York Times that reported on new research showing that children with friends from different classes have an easier time moving up the economic ladder than those who don’t. I am a case in point.
I went straight to the source and found this interactive map that shows what percentage of low-income people’s friends have higher incomes than they do. It was no shock that the highest number I encountered was the county where I went to college.
Sadly the lowest number of any place I’ve lived is the county where I currently reside. This means that my children are less likely to have cross-class friendships than I did growing up – which is saying a lot given where I grew up. It should be noted however that our town is still relatively integrated by class compared to other parts of the country – particularly the south, where the likelihood of cross-class friendships are often half as likely as where I am now.
On one level, the benefits of having friends with different backgrounds should be obvious. We all have different lived experiences, perspectives, connections and skills that can be beneficial to one another. Yet we segregate ourselves nonetheless. Sometimes this can be done with malevolent intentions – and self-defeating repercussions (read this article on the “Drained Pool Effect” and you’ll see what I mean.) Other times it is done simply in the name of doing “the best for my family” – even though ultimately it often isn’t.
The article offers some pretty simple solutions; “supporting more subsidized housing in well-off neighborhoods, more diverse schools and colleges,” and a better use of public parks that “can draw a diverse mix of families – to encourage interactions among richer and poorer people.”
To this I might add investing in programs that bring people and children from neighboring communities together. Our high school did this years ago when putting on a production of the show Hairspray in conjunction with a neighboring school. Increased scholarships for travel sports teams would be another easy fix – as would cross-community collaboration among elected officials. Most importantly, it would start with nurturing more cross-class friendships ourselves.
There are a whole host of factors that have contributed to my move up the economic ladder, but the impact of my friends is perhaps the most simple to recognize.
Thank you to all my friends who, implicitly or explicitly, helped show me the way up from the situation I was born into. I hope one day my children will pay it forward and do the same for their friends.