The American dream is on life support. For more than 50 years the percentage of American children who grow up to earn more than their parents has been in decline. Only half of kids today will achieve that basic goal, and a child born into poverty has a mere 7.5 percent chance of making it to the top. The notion of this nation as a land of opportunity has never been further from the truth. 

Simultaneously, America’s social fabric is in tatters. For more than 60 years, social capital — informal ties to friends, neighbors and fellow citizens — as well as solidarity and social trust, have been in sharp decline. We are living increasingly isolated and segregated lives. The ideal of America as a nation of neighbors has never been more out of reach. 

Social scientists have long believed that these two phenomena are related. But thanks to a new study by intrepid economist Raj Chetty, we now have the data to prove it. 

Chetty was one of the first social scientists to mine “big data” for insights into what’s really driving economic and social problems in America. He and his team first used anonymized income tax records of 40 million children and parents to create a color-coded map that provides an unvarnished and strikingly detailed picture of where American kids are succeeding economically, and where they are not. The biggest takeaway from this landmark study on economic mobility: Whether or not children achieve the American dream depends largely on something entirely out of their control — the ZIP code into which they are born.

In their latest study — published in Nature in August — Chetty and his colleagues analyzed privacy protected data on 72.2 million Facebook users to create a color-coded map that details exactly where our social fabric is strong, and where it’s coming apart. The biggest takeaway from this landmark study on social capital: ZIP codes that have high levels of social capital have high levels of economic mobility. Broadly speaking, the two maps are nearly identical.

Many different kinds of social connections make up a society. But one important distinction is between bonding (associations we make with people like ourselves) and bridging (associations across lines of difference). Because of the richness of the Facebook data, Chetty and his colleagues were able to drill down even further to measure two specific aspects of interclass bridging, one they call “exposure” and the other they call “friending bias.” 

Exposure measures the economic diversity of a given setting — how likely you are to encounter someone who doesn’t share your socioeconomic profile in the various spaces you move through in society. High “exposure” in a given setting means more economic diversity.

“Friending bias,” on the other hand, measures the likelihood that in a particular setting you will not just encounter someone from a different social class, but will actually form a connection across the class divide. Low “friending bias” means that low-income people have lots of high-income friends, and vice versa.

Teasing out these two threads of our social fabric adds crucial nuance to discussions of how to help more kids achieve the American dream, because most reform efforts to this end have focused solely on exposure: creating systems, spaces and structures that increase economic diversity. But Chetty’s data shows that more exposure doesn’t necessarily mean more friending. 

There’s just no way to solve America’s economic mobility problem without society’s economic winners reaching across the chasm of class to lend a hand to everyone else.

Take mixed-income neighborhoods. Building affordable housing in more affluent areas means that the opportunity for social interaction between disparate classes goes up. Rich folks and poor folks will see each other out walking dogs and playing on the playground, but there’s no guarantee that the kids in the new apartment complex will be invited to the neighborhood pool party at the house down the block. As a result, personal connections that would help them access new opportunities may never be made.

Similarly, universities can do away with admissions policies that favor “legacy” applicants over first-generation applicants who are equally qualified. But while leveling the admissions playing field will likely increase cross-class exposure on campus, getting legacy students to befriend underprivileged students is another matter entirely. Thus, the networks first-gen students need to make it to graduation, find mentors and land jobs may never form.

This likely explains why, despite significant public investment over the past several years in efforts to reverse economic segregation, economic mobility hasn’t improved much, if at all. It’s not that exposure doesn’t matter, it’s that getting rich people and poor people to occupy the same space is just not enough.

Indeed, this big-data insight proves what might have been obvious were it not so hard to hear: Even if we fix all the broken systems that segregate people economically, we still have to do the work of interacting with one another in meaningful ways. Whether it’s across the tracks, across the street or across the lunchroom, there’s just no way to solve America’s economic mobility problem without society’s winners reaching across the chasm of class to lend a hand to everyone else. 

That may seem impossible to imagine in a society that has reached historic levels of cultural self-centeredness, but in fact it may be easier to tackle friending bias than segregation. Creating more economically diverse communities often involves reimagining geographies, addressing codified discrimination, mobilizing scarce resources and coalition building among stakeholders who disagree on how to restructure society.

But this new statistical story of the rags to riches idyll has a surprisingly personal, and hopeful, dimension. It turns out that breathing life back into the American dream can start immediately, with just one intentional interaction between two people of different social classes — a single act of friending.

So how do we get more people to not just encounter each other, but actually connect across lines of economic difference? Consider which communities or institutions in our society are doing “friending” particularly well. From among the 21 billion Facebook connections that Chetty and his colleagues analyzed, a clear trend emerged: Americans are more likely to befriend someone of a different social class in a religious setting than in their neighborhood, in high school, at work or even in college. The data show unequivocally that the place poor kids and rich kids are most likely to become friends is at church.

But what is it about religious settings that makes them more fertile ground for unlikely friendships? And what can secular institutions, whose success at fostering friending plays a key role in keeping the American dream alive, learn from religious groups?

The logic of how and why we connect with people varies across the institutions and communities we’re a part of, but in most cases it’s self-promotion by association. We think that success is not what you know but who you know, and it doesn’t pay to seek out people who are worse off. 

In a religious context, however, this logic is generally turned on its head. People encountered in the pews aren’t status symbols, door openers or rungs on the ladder to success. They’re fellow travelers on a humbling path to encountering God. Thus, social and economic hierarchies are superseded by common purpose, common values and common ideals. Rather than being yet another arena in which to compete, religious spaces instead cultivate an ethic of camaraderie.

Religious encounters also offer opportunities to gain real insight into the lives of others, which is rare in a culture dominated by curated images. At a 12-step meeting or a grief support group, vulnerability and authenticity are prized, while posturing and pretense just don’t play. Sharing about life’s struggles fosters a sense of empathy and creates pathways to genuine relationships that are often hard to come by in other settings. 

But it’s not just the nature of interpersonal encounters in religious settings that foster what Chetty and his team call friending. It is also the unabashed project of moral formation in which religious institutions are engaged. Nearly every religious tradition lauds love, generosity and selflessness as the virtues that build us up; while denouncing pride, greed and self-centeredness as vices that unravel our foundations. Though rarely, if ever, enacted perfectly, the call to lend a hand to people who are struggling is something believers are taught to do as an expression of their highest ideals. By putting forward a clear narrative about its value, religious communities endow social integration with a higher meaning and purpose, incentivizing adherents to reach out, befriend and lend a hand.

And religious organizations don’t just preach social integration and economic redistribution from the pulpit, they have also built enormous infrastructure to facilitate it — an underrecognized feature of our nation’s social safety net which, were it to disappear overnight, would leave millions of Americans without basic necessities. 

Of course, religious institutions are not the only ones capable of inducing people to associate across socioeconomic lines. Schools, colleges, civic groups, workplaces, neighborhoods and many other settings in which Americans live out their daily lives can in fact be wellsprings of both interclass exposure and friending. But the people within them must be courageous enough to intentionally foster not only structural inclusivity but also — and equally crucially as Chetty’s study indicates — behavioral inclusivity. Our secular institutions must also engage in the moral formation of citizens, who are ultimately the ones who will choose to look out and not in, and to lend a hand.

But what would that secular moral formation look like? Exactly what it looks like in religious settings: Creating a shared sense of identity that supersedes apparent differences. Offering opportunities for people to interact authentically. Promoting empathy and genuine connection. Constructing meaning-making narratives that uphold virtues like generosity, selflessness and unity. And providing pathways to act upon these ideals. 

Religion has long taught that relationship, compassion and care — “friending” — can cure what ails our society. And we now have the data to prove it.

Looking to religion for clues about how to revive the American dream may seem awkward in our rapidly secularizing society. More and more Americans seem to believe that religion is a source of our problems, not a wellspring of their cure. And some of this cynicism rightly stems from the fact that religious institutions and religious adherents have often failed to live up to their own moral code.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 on a Sunday morning. Though that was more true in the mid-1960s than it is today, attending the house of worship around the corner — whether Catholic or Methodist or Muslim — usually means joining a group whose economic and racial profile is remarkably homogenous. If they would amplify their influence as drivers of economic mobility, then religious institutions must think deeply about how to increase diversity and avoid insularity.

But it’s not just about religions failing to practice what they preach. Sometimes the preaching is the problem. The prosperity gospel, for example, which has taken hold in certain parts of American Christendom, teaches that God rewards the righteous with wealth. In this framework, poverty is a sign of personal moral failing, rather than a social ill we must all work together to cure. Religious teaching must be careful not to frame the less fortunate as people to be pitied or disdained.

And, of course, there’s a lot of hypocrisy at play when religious Americans engage in politics that protect their own interests and lock others out of opportunity. Moral formation is only complete when behavior changes not just at church suppers, but at school board meetings, on planning commissions, in neighborhoods and in voting booths. 

Indeed, the faithful are not without their blind spots. While Chetty’s data clearly shows that religious spaces are some of the best-equipped institutions in America for making cross-class “friending” actually happen, there is still ample room for reform if religious groups want to truly maximize their ability to elevate the least among us. 

One of the most famous passages in Christian scripture is the parable of the good Samaritan. As the story goes, a lawyer approaches Jesus and asks how he can gain eternal life. He knows he must follow the Jewish law — Love thy neighbor as thyself — but he wants some clarification about exactly what that means. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks.

Jesus responds with a parable. A man, presumably Jewish, is attacked, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite, both at the top of the social hierarchy, pass him by. Only a Samaritan — a segregated group despised by the Jews — stops to care for the injured man. He binds his wounds, provides him shelter and pays for an innkeeper to look after him. Jesus then asks the lawyer which of the three — the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan — acted as a neighbor to the wounded man. The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.”

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This parable contains a many-layered lesson, but one is assuredly this: The morally formative invitation to “love thy neighbor” is less about proximity and more about reaching across lines of difference. Though we may occupy the same spaces as unlike others — passing them in our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces — it is only the one who reaches out in love and empathy that truly lives out the ideal of neighborliness. 

Religion has long taught that relationship, compassion and care — “friending” — can cure what ails our society. And we now have the data to prove it.  

Shaylyn Romney Garrett co-authored with Robert D. Putnam “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.”

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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