Faith communities propel upward mobility


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Faith institutions are places to connect with the divine. But a massive new study finds they are also the best place to pursue upward mobility of the earthly variety.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/08/2022 (210 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Faith institutions are places to connect with the divine. But a massive new study finds they are also the best place to pursue upward mobility of the earthly variety.

A tendency for members of religious groups to befriend and help each other is highlighted in new research published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Nature. The study, titled “Social Capital: Determinants of Economic Connectedness,” began in 2018 with the goal of answering the question: can a social network help lift a person out of poverty?

Harvard University economist Raj Chetty and nearly two dozen other scholars worked with Meta (formerly known as Facebook) to sift through online accounts of the social relationships of more than 70 million users.

The massive amount of data — it’s regarded as the most comprehensive study ever done on the topic — found people’s social connections largely determine the chance of upward mobility. In other words, successful friends matter.

That observation is unsurprising, but the study went on to describe why it’s difficult for outsiders to have productive friendships with people who are successful.

The social connections of both advantaged and disadvantaged people are largely determined by their jobs, the location of their homes, the schools they attended and the organizations they join. They move in different circles.

Getting these circles to intersect is often attempted through social engineering such as busing children to a better school district or giving disadvantaged students scholarships to universities. But, the study shows, mixing people from different economic classes doesn’t necessarily garner lasting relationships. You can make people mingle, but you can’t make them friends.

Researchers call it “friending bias.” It means people from different economic backgrounds have a bias against forming long-term connections even when they’re exposed to each other.

That’s where faith-based groups offer an encouraging exception. That’s where “friending bias” is lowest, the study found. Communities of faith top the list when it comes to effectives place to achieve upward mobility, even more than meeting successful people through secular group activities such as recreational sports teams or clubs.

This conclusion will be nothing new to people who attend churches, synogogues, temples and mosques. They know distinctions of social class and income are supposed to be left at the door. All faiths preach compassion, so attenders try to be nice to each other, at least at their weekly services when people feel they’re on display and try to put their best selves forward.

It’s common before or after religious services to see a blending of people who would not normally interact socially with each other; perhaps a 50-year-old doctor in a suit and tie chats over coffee with a 30-year-old truck driver with a Blue Bomber jersey and a university student with prominent tattoos. They’re united by shared faith.

As interesting as the study is, perhaps it should come with a caution: don’t join a faith community if you’re primarily interested in using the group for upward mobility. If newcomers fake an interest in faith but are mostly interested in drumming up business or networking with someone in a position to help them get ahead in their careeers, they will soon be seen as posers.

In the church communities I know, it would be gauche to blatantly solicit fellow members for personal gain. The typical warm welcome would chill quickly for a newcomer who arrives handing out business cards and start-up pitches. The purpose of the gathering is to worship, not to schmooze.

That said, church members often do business with each other and hire each other, based on relationships of trust. When someone needs to employ someone skilled in a particular trade or craft, they will choose someone with a reputation within the church community for good work at a fair price. They also share investment tips.

And when someone within the church needs a job, other people will hire them if possible, or at least keep their ears open for unadvertised job opportunities.

The ways in which people of faith help each get ahead is heartening, although it doesn’t always end well. I know a congregation in which a business deal between two guys went sour; a large amount of money couldn’t be repaid, resulting in a degree of bitterness that even biblical admonitions about forgiveness couldn’t quell.

In my view, the aforementioned study was valuable in compiling evidence for what we already knew: faith communities are good at overlooking differences of class and income, accepting people and giving them a hand up.

What the study doesn’t mention is that connections between people of faith are just a side benefit. The more important connection is with the deity.

Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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