Thursday, August 7, 2014

Character and poverty

A growing body of social science research demonstrates that the path out of poverty requires not only money but also character development. In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks summarizes some of that research ("The Character Factory," July 31, 2014). Important components of character include an individual having a credible hope for a better economic future, perseverance in the face of adversity (or even a tediously repetitive task), and willingness to delay gratification for the promise of a greater reward in the future.

Suggesting that character development is integral to ending poverty is often unpopular. First, most of us rightly reject blaming a victim for her or his status. Sometimes poverty results from factors beyond an individual's control – any individual's control. For example, nobody chooses to have a costly, incurable, debilitating disease. Even the reasonably affluent, when personally afflicted with such a disease, can easily become impoverished, perhaps dragging an entire family into poverty. Second, many citizens, regardless of political persuasion, do not regard character development as a government responsibility.

Brooks identifies four factors important for character development:

  1. Encouraging people to form productive habits such as honoring commitments and showing up for work (or school!) on time and prepared;
  2. Giving people the opportunity to succeed
  3. Finding moral exemplars (role models) who have succeeded and whose example inspires other people to believe that they too can succeed;
  4. Setting and establishing accountability for reasonable standards.

Character development, as any parent knows, is exceptionally difficult. Those four factors are far easier to enumerate than to establish in transformative ways among people who currently feel hopeless and disenfranchised. Social science research, for example, has shown that teenage girls from poor and socially disadvantaged backgrounds have a substantially lower rate of teen pregnancy when they believe that higher education is attainable. In general, teenage mothers are more likely to live in poverty, have a baby with a low birth weight, raise children who will not finish high school, etc., than are non-teenage mothers. In short, teenage pregnancies are usually bad for the teen, the child born, and society as a whole.

Moves to shift responsibility for social welfare programs from the government to religious organizations were both ill conceived and a step in the right direction. The shift was ill conceived in that religious organizations do not have the funds required to shoulder government responsibility for the less advantaged. However, the move was a step in the right direction to the extent that religious organizations perceive their role as character development rather than as replacing government funding.

Character formation is basic to a religious organization's mission. Character development should be a central goal for the religious education of children and youth, explicitly incorporated into every program. Parents, leaders, and clergy should assess current and prospective programming by asking two questions:

  1. What time of person do I want our children/youth to become?
  2. Will this program contribute to that goal?

No government, much less any religious organization, can end poverty through financially underwriting the poor. Instead, religious organizations can make an essential and appropriate contribution to ending poverty by helping children, youth, and adults develop the character traits that make for an abundant life.

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