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The Deeper Dig: What keeps Vermonters together across a widening income divide

The Craftsbury General Store in Craftsbury in October. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Data from 21 billion Facebook friendships shows that when you know more high-income people, your income is more likely to rise over time, according to an analysis from Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit based out of Harvard University. The data puts numbers to something that’s pretty intuitive: Social connections, even just acquaintances, can pass along job openings and other opportunities. 

The study found that certain regions were far more likely to foster those types of connections than others. Vermont has a relatively high degree of “economic connectedness” compared to other states. 

But those friendships are still relatively rare. People are far more likely to be friends with others within a similar social class. There’s two main causes for this, according to researchers: Within groups, people tend to draw toward others like them. But the built environment — schools, stores, local zoning — also plays a big role. 

In this episode, data reporter Erin Petenko looks for community ties that connect Vermonters across class. She interviews Jana Smart and Emily Maclure of the Craftsbury General Store; Brian Lowe, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development; Belan Antensaye, a board member of the Vermont Professionals of Color Network; and Cheryl Morse, a social geographer at the University of Vermont. 

Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity. 

Riley Robinson: Tell me about this social capital study? Or how should we refer to it? 

Erin Petenko: It’s by Opportunity Insights, which is a research group out of Harvard that has done a lot of these big social sciences studies. 

The one that I wrote about was this one on social connectedness and social capital. So what they did was they took the Facebook friends of everyone in a local area and measured how many low-income people were Facebook friends with higher-income people and things like that. And then they also connected it with economic mobility and how people ended up in their lives. What they found is that essentially, the higher-income people you interact with, the more likely you are to end up in a higher-income bracket. 

Essentially, like having friends who are well off or, you know, are pretty well off, will help you to achieve more things later in life. Maybe because you have more access to opportunities, like jobs, maybe because it’ll help you, you know, get a better education or a different kind of education that you would have otherwise been. And just like general exposure to opportunities in your life.

The catch, I guess, you could say is that on the whole, we don’t interact with each other all that much. People tend to stay in their little groups, their little income groups. And it’s very rare for someone from a lower class to genuinely make friends with someone from a higher class versus say, like, just work for them as an employee. So I thought it was interesting to kind of look at that throughout Vermont, and ask the question of: Is Vermont providing people with access to social capital, that can lead them to get actual opportunities and end up at a higher end of the income scale? 

Riley Robinson: So these researchers were just looking at — it was just the number of Facebook friends, right? And who you’re friends with, not anything about the depth of these interactions? 

Erin Petenko: Yeah, it’s just based on who your Facebook friends with. And I would also posit, as well, that there might be a bias just in terms of who your Facebook friends are. For example, I very rarely use Facebook these days. So most of my Facebook friends are people from high school or college. And, you know, there’s also I would say, maybe different usage of Facebook, depending on your age, and your demographics, things like that. 

Riley Robinson: Quick note — this data is imperfect, and the smallest towns got left out because it was just too small a sample size. 

Erin Petenko: But I also think that there’s something interesting about the fact that you can see a benefit to having a Facebook friend, whether or not that person’s like a serious best friend in your life, versus just an acquaintance that you checked yes on when they sent you a Facebook request. So that was part of why I kind of delved into, you know, several institutions that are kind of designed to promote interaction, not necessarily best friend interaction, just creating any kind of community group that people can unite around.   

I was also kind of interested in seeing how a built environment could contribute to more social connectedness, like, how do you physically structure a space to promote people getting to know each other? 

Someone suggested I go to the library, because the library is obviously, like, a public institution with a wide social usage. The only thing about that is, like  — I don’t know if you’ve been to the library, but they don’t generally promote talking to people. 

Riley Robinson: So Erin went out to talk to folks about what works, and she ended up at the Craftsbury General Store, lovingly known as the Genny. 

Erin Petenko: I came during lunchtime, they’re playing Michael Jackson. And everyone was dancing around the aisles. 

The owners of the store are very aware that this is the place where people hang out, where people get to know each other, where people run into each other. They also do things like they host occasional community dinners. They have like a little post office where people can send out their mail. 

Jana Smart, left, and Emily Maclure, along with Kit Basom, not pictured, own the Craftsbury General Store in Craftsbury. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Jana Smart: We were laughing at this this morning, because there was a group of women all in the very center, like the most high-traffic part of the store, in conversation about something really personal and intimate. . 

Riley Robinson: This is Jana Smart, one of the Genny’s co-owners. 

Jana Smart: And it’s like, that is what the store — that happens all day long. You know, people crossing paths. Because it’s not like a city where the proximity sort of creates that environment. And so this is like you watch it all day long. 

Erin Petenko: Once a year in July, usually they have this big, big party where basically everyone in town comes. 

Riley Robinson: Jana Smart, Emily Maclure, and Kit Basom run the Genny together. They also run the general store in Albany, one town over. The Albany General store had burnt in a fire several years ago, and closed, and people from the town raised about $800,000 to bring it back. 

Jana Smart: There’s like, the deeper connection, right? So different interactions, and even just like on a small level. People will be like, oh, I need to leave something for my friend. And I’m just gonna leave it at the general store. The idea that, like, ‘I have a message to give, I have a thing to give someone, I have…’  This is where people come to deposit things for other people.

Emily Maclure: Or to call with troubles, like, oh, my car broke down. Help. We’ve been part of interventions. I’ve been on phone for like suicide watch calls. 

Jana Smart: It’s, like, a depository for the human experience. 

Erin Petenko: Are there other institutions, organizations, physical places, that do a good job in rural communities of connecting people? 

Brian Lowe: If you rewound, like 50 years ago, I could tell you Grange halls, VFW halls, a lot of kind of fraternal-organization-type entities. And schools, I think those things have changed over the, you know, some kind of period of time. 

Riley Robinson: This is Brian Lowe. He’s the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. 

Brian Lowe: I can think about some of the communities we’ve worked in, like churches, museums. Like the Old Stone House in Brownington, right. There are places where people connect. Lumber mills, the dump. 

Riley Robinson: Brian wasn’t the only person who name-dropped the dump as one of those places of connection. Shoutout to the dump. 

Brian Lowe: It certainly seems like social capital matters. What was exciting about that paper was the kind of idea of being able to illuminate why it matters. 

People are people. And I do think expectations can be powerful things for what people want to do, and aspire to do. 

Riley Robinson: There’s lots of factors to why Americans are really fractured across class lines. These researchers said some of it is physical geography. At the really granular level, it can come down to local zoning and how towns are built.  

Brian Lowe: Where are those spaces to actually physically gather? Where are the trusted places where you can go? I was talking to someone recently about like, from a young, professional perspective. How do you do it? Right? Like, if you have young kids, like maybe it’s through your kids’ child care or school, if you’re lucky enough to get child care. But for folks who don’t, it’s really hard. 

Riley Robinson: So I know a lot of your reporting, focused on where Vermont is doing better at this, or some of the unique aspects of Vermont that really promote social connectedness. But I think the flip side of this study, it shows just how much opportunity is still trapped within the circle of who you know, in social circles, and not on merit in an open pool. That’s the flip reading that I’m getting out of this.

Erin Petenko: Yeah, so I talked to Belan Antensaye who works with the Vermont Professionals of Color Network, and she told me a little bit about how the organization helps to create connections and community among BIPOC Vermonters. 

Belan Antensaye works with the Vermont Professionals of Color Network. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Belan Antensaye: One of the things we try to do is not have any kind of strict guideline around what qualifies a professional, whether it’s white collar, blue collar. 

Riley Robinson: This is Belan. 

Belan Antensaye: In that, we’re removing some of these traditional, or more white, standards of what it means to be a professional, and we’re just looking at the person at work. 

Riley Robinson: Another note on the data — this Facebook data set didn’t look at friendships by race or other demographics. But other research has looked at how people group together in their social lives. One national poll found that 40% of white people have only white friends. About 25% of people of color responded that all of their friends are the same race as them. 

Belan Antensaye: The spaces of school and the workplace, I think, are the easiest places for people to make these cross-economic friendships. That being said, to enter those spaces, there’s still a high barrier. So there’s a tiny percentage of low income people that enter high income spaces.

Cheryl Morse: I was really fascinated to read their findings. Because it confirms, a little bit, my working theory, that if you go to a public high school, where kids of all economic backgrounds are attending from different communities, and if that high school is small enough, you absolutely are making friends with people from all different backgrounds. There’s no way to avoid it.

Riley Robinson: This is Cheryl Morse. She’s a social geographer at UVM. 

Cheryl Morse: So my high school had a graduating class of 89 people, and we all knew each other’s names. And so there were cliques for sure, but there was so much movement between them that it was just too small to have cliques that were exclusive. I guess you can put it that way. 

I can say that in my own anecdotal lived experience that I experienced a high degree of economic — I don’t know if it was economic connectedness, but I experienced many friendships with people from various income brackets, as I was growing up, and those friendships have persisted into my 50s. So I think I wasn’t surprised when I looked to see the towns in Vermont that I’m aware of, that I know well, to see that high level of economic cohesion. I think in Vermont, we have public high schools. That’s one factor. We have far fewer private schools and charter schools that I think might segregate people. And I wonder if that’s one of the factors in the southern United States that’s making it less economically connected.

Belan Antensaye: I do think that the education piece is obvious. Everyone says that trope, like, education opens doors, but I do think that in the university setting is usually when people from lower economic backgrounds interact with people from higher economic backgrounds. 

And so that happened with me too. 

Riley Robinson: Belan noticed this when she was a student at Cornell. 

Belan Antensaye: I remember that some data came out. And it was like 50% of Cornell students pay for tuition fully and don’t receive any financial aid. 

Riley Robinson: Cornell at the time cost about $74,000 per year.

Belan Antensaye: Until I read that, I was like, Who am I going to school with? It was crazy for me as someone who got almost full financial aid for that.

Riley Robinson: Opportunity Insights, which did this study we’ve been talking about, did a different study on universities about five years ago. And again, they put numbers to something that is pretty intuitive – elite colleges really do boost economic mobility for their students who don’t come from wealth. 

But this helps a relatively small number of people, because these really elite institutions are often accepting and enrolling small numbers of low-income students. And it’s a similar thing at a lot of non-Ivy League schools too.  

Granted, this research came out in 2017. But it found that the median family income for a student at Middlebury College was more than $244,000. Only about 3% of students came from the bottom 20% of household income. But those students, who came from families with less money, were far more likely than the national average to end up in the top 20% of earners later in life.

At UVM, the median family income was more than $121,000. That’s about double the median household income in Vermont, generally. 

Erin Petenko: There is one question that I wanted to ask you. And I’m wondering, do you think that there’s a way that we, as a society, could encourage those kinds of friendships more?

Cheryl Morse: Yes. I think we just — yes. 

We could house people together purposefully in colleges the way Yale does, or an even more publicly accessible means to achieve mixing would be the way we lay out our public spaces, like parks, and town centers, so that people mix with each other. The way we lay out schools, so that students come into central places and they bump into each other in the hallways. I think there’s a geography to connectedness that can be very intentional.

Town Meeting is again, another place where — you see everybody at Town Meeting. And it’s in one big room together. And there are often social activities that are in traditions that surround that town meeting. And that’s a place where geographically specific economic mixing happens. 

Cheryl Morse: The recycling drop off. For towns that have one central spot, if you want to go meet people. I had my student, who’s doing research up in northern Vermont, she specifically brought donuts to the recycling drop off place on Saturday morning to try to meet people that she could interview.