Across the U.S., economic mobility is frequently linked with geography. Some places afford poor children the opportunity to do better economically than their parents did, and other places do not. Social networks, providing access to support, information, power, and resources, are a critical and often neglected element of opportunity structures. Social capital matters for mobility.

We undertook this research project to understand and compare the social networks of groups of diverse individuals in three U.S. cities (Racine, WI; San Francisco, CA; and Washington, DC) relative to job, stable housing, and educational opportunities. These three cities were selected because of their very different economic mobility profiles: San Francisco is a high-mobility city, Washington is a city of moderate economic mobility, and Racine is a low mobility city.

We analyzed over 30,000 interpersonal network connections across all three cities, drawing on rich data from 254 interview participants: 107 in Washington, 96 in San Francisco, and 51 in Racine. Interviews were conducted between May 15, 2020, and July 24, 2020. These networks were then evaluated for size (i.e., number of people), composition (i.e., range of connection types, such as familial or professional) and strength (i.e., the value of connection as a source of assistance).

In an initial effort to understand how the network characteristics differed by demography and geography, we investigated the topic-specific network data by city and the following demographic characteristics of the participants: age, race, gender, educational attainment, individual income, and neighborhood of residence.

After our initial investigation of these social networks, we determined that race and gender were the most important explanatory characteristics in Racine and Washington, and that race and individual income (either below $50,000 or $50,000 and above, annually) were most important in San Francisco.

Read the full report about economic mobility by Camille Busette, Jill Simmerman Lawrence, Richard V. Reeves, and Sarah Nzau at Brookings.