Going to church can help increase upward economic mobility


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The never-ending quest to understand why some people are more easily able than others to achieve the American dream has an intriguing new wrinkle.

It’s not just about where you go to school, where you live or your family structure (although the last of these questions is extremely important) determines whether and to what extent you will become economically upward mobile.

Your friendships also matter, especially if they cross socio-economic boundaries; that is, if you develop relationships with people who are richer than you.

That’s one of the key takeaways from new research from a group of academics, including Harvard University economist Raj Chetty.

Chetty and her colleagues examined the social networks of 72.2 million Facebook users aged 25 to 44 and made some interesting observations about how personal relationships promote mobility.

They found that children raised in environments with a higher rate of friendships between people of low and high socioeconomic status have much higher rates of upward mobility. This means, as Chetty explained in The New York Times, that they have a much better chance of lifting themselves out of poverty.

Forging these friendships, however, isn’t always easy – and not always because people are reluctant to make friends across socio-economic lines.

Researchers have found, for example, that people of lower socioeconomic status tend to develop most relationships within their neighborhood, where there is less socioeconomic diversity.

Wealthier people tend to form lasting friendships in college, where the same is often true.

This is what researchers call an “exposure” problem.

What is interesting, however, is that when poorer people attend college and therefore increase their exposure to people of higher socio-economic status, they are still less likely to form friendships with their higher peers. rich, a phenomenon researchers call “friendship bias.”

It turns out that the friendship bias is high not only in neighborhoods but also in certain recreational activities, such as sports, which tend to reinforce socio-economic segregation.

But the friendship bias is not present everywhere, because the institutional structure seems to play a role in the formation of friendships.

Where is the friendship bias weakest? Religious establishments.

The researchers found that friendship bias was negative in religious groups “because friendships between religious groups do not exhibit substantial homophily (the tendency to form strong social bonds with people who share one’s defining characteristics) according to socio-economic status”.

In fact, the poorest people are about 20% more likely to befriend someone wealthier in their religious groups than in their neighborhood.

This should not be a new discovery for anyone who is part of a community of faith.

Shared faith replaces the temporal, making it easier, even natural, to form meaningful connections based on things other than socioeconomic status.

Or like Brad Wilcox, sociologist and director of the National Marriage Project, noted on twitterinterclass relations are more easily forged when “a common ethos/end/telos underlies such friendships”.

God is a stronger bond than where you live, go to school, or play baseball.

This suggests, at the very least, that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious institutions have something crucial to teach us about relationships.

Of course, breaking socioeconomic barriers isn’t as simple as befriending the people you regularly attend church services with.

As the authors of the study (and many other data) point out, religious institutions are often, but not always, relatively homogeneous in terms of the socioeconomic status of their members.

This makes sense, as many churches draw from the neighborhoods around them.

But there are many churches, like mine, that (for doctrinal and other reasons) attract people from afar.

These “pendulum” churches naturally generate significant socio-economic diversity. Thus, they increase economic ties and promote integration – circumstances that researchers believe increase upward mobility.

While there is already ample evidence of the value that religious institutions bring to society, this latest research provides one more. It can help increase upward mobility (yours and those around you), in addition to saving your soul.

It looks like a win to me.

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Cynthia Allen joined Star-Telegram’s Editorial Board in 2014 after a decade of work in government and public affairs in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Editorial Board and writes a weekly opinion column on a wide range of topics including politics, faith and motherhood.


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