Coming Together

by Jason Battista

We couldn’t be more different.

I am white; he is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants. I grew up in an upper-middle class household; he grew up in poverty. I attended the very best schools in the state; he attended schools on the verge of being closed for low performance. I was raised by a family who voted for Bush and McCain; he was raised by a family who voted for Kerry and Obama.

Despite these fundamental differences, Prateek and I have been best friends for more than 17 years.

Until recently, I didn’t think our friendship was anything profound. But a deluge of studies from sociologists and economists illustrate that friendships like ours are ceasing to exist. Americans are simply not spending time with people who are politically and socioeconomically different from them, and consequently, we are increasingly threatened by each other’s ideological affinities.

For example, one out of every two Republican parents do not want their child marrying a Democrat, and a third of Democrats believe the same. To put this in perspective, in 1960, only five percent of Republicans and four percent of Democrats stated they would be unhappy if their child married someone from the other party. According to Pew research, 49% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans say they are “afraid” of the other, and therefore, 64% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans say they have “just a few or no” friends from the other party.

The rapid pace of socioeconomic segregation is fueling this division. Those living exclusively in affluent neighborhoods have doubled in the last few decades, and those living exclusively in poor neighborhoods have nearly tripled, according to Professor Reardon from Stanford. Correspondingly, those living in affluent neighborhoods have strikingly different views on religion, marriage, parenting, and education than those living exclusively in poorer neighborhoods, according to political scientists Robert Putnam and Charles Murray. These physical divisions were illuminated in the 2016 election: out of America’s 3,113 counties, just 303 went to either candidate by 10 points or fewer; 1,196 won by 50 points or more.

There are no easy answers on the solutions to this increasing trend of stratification; however, there are housing and education examples across the country that policymakers should examine closely.

Our geographic differences are not just urban and rural, but rather, a division of class. Mercy Housing, Inc., a national low-income housing developer based in Denver, strives to bridge this divide. By strategically building affordable housing – often in high-cost, urban areas – and providing comprehensive services, Mercy Housing helps move residents on a continuum from survival to stability to self-sufficiency, with the goal of successful integration into a diverse community.

In the education sector, Cambridge Public Schools created an enrollment system that centers on socioeconomic diversity by making sure no school has more than 40% of their student body eligible for free or reduced lunch. Bellingham Public Schools spearheaded “Project Free Education,” where all enrichment and advanced high school programs are free for students, greatly increasing interaction among students of different backgrounds.

The aforementioned examples can translate into policy prescriptions that can garner broad, bipartisan support and purposefully do not touch on controversial issues that fuel political and socioeconomic stratification (e.g., gerrymandering, exclusive-zoning, and the home-mortgage tax deduction). I put forward these cross-sectional examples as a means to start a conversation on how to get more people to engage with those who are different from them.

For me, this is deeply personal because our friendship has changed my life.

Our friendship has shown me how important it is to regularly engage with others that are not members of our circles of homogeneity. Our friendship has taught me to listen, hear, and respect those with opposing views. Most importantly, our friendship has taught me that we must come together because cultivating relationships with those who differ from us can lead to the greatest personal, and ultimately societal, growth.

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Jason Battista is the President of Mercy Loan Fund, a subsidiary of Mercy Housing, Inc., the nation’s largest nonprofit affordable housing owner based in Denver, CO. He has an undergraduate degree in Finance from the University of Northern Colorado and a MBA from the University of Colorado.

Contributions from Dr. Prateek Dutta, who is the Manager of Turnaround Schools at Denver Public Schools. He has an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Northern Colorado and a Doctorate in Education Leadership from Harvard University. 

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