Category Archives: harvard

Good places for kids’ social mobility

Scholars Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hedren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez (from Harvard and Berkeley) have garnered richly deserved  attention for their interesting retrospective look at which places were the best in America for low-income kids to be born in 1980 and 1981 to assure the highest rates of youth mobility.  [Amazingly, to do this, they were able to examine tax returns of all Americans and connect the youth with where they had grown up.]

Map of historic youth mobility in US

[To explore the above map where blue areas are areas of highest mobility and red areas are areas of lowest mobility, visit the New York Times site.]

Their work rhymes with two pieces of research that we have done.

First, they find that the places that promoted the greatest level of mobility were  places high in social capital.  [For an image of social capital by state in the US c. 2000 see here.] This is less surprising, since other scholars have found that places with high social capital were among the places historically to invest in public high schools (e.g., Larry Katz and Claudia Goldin’s work on the birth of American public high school movement in the American heartland).  Moreover, recent research by our research team, highlighted in Robert Putnam’s “Crumbling American Dreams” shows the changes in levels of community solidarity and togetherness, exemplified by the changes in his home town of Port Clinton, OH.

Second, they find that places with greater percentages of minorities were also places that afforded less social mobility for young people.  This resonates with work of Ed Glaeser and Alberto Alesina on how it is harder to foster public investments in places of greater diversity (in the US and Europe) and work that we did in “E Pluribus Unum” that also discusses the short-term challenges of increased diversity.

While their work is retrospective, we are actively involved in gathering data on social mobility for youth from the bottom third of American households (in income and education) that strongly suggests that whether levels of mobility that existed for lower-third youth in the past, future rates of mobility are likely to much lower.  Stay tuned for our evidence of this coming crisis and what we might do about it.

Very nice calls to service by Oprah & Jon Murad (HKS) at 2013 Harvard Commencement

Jon Murad, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Kennedy School, is going off to be a cop in New York City.  His Graduate Student address  is a wonderful call to serve.

Snippets: 

“I’m probably not the only municipal cop in the country with 2 Harvard degrees, but I’m surely in a tiny cohort, but that’s not a boast but a lament. If there is something special about this place [Harvard] and the lessons that we learned here, and I believe there is, then America, the world needs people like you in these roles.  Because John Adams was dead wrong, success doesn’t mean rising to the top, it means changing the world. And here’s the secret: everyone changes the world, everything ripples. It’s how we do it that counts.

So how do we do it? Do you choose a job that serves others, as many of you have already done? Do you sign up to be a Big Sister? Do you check out Citizen Schools? Do you volunteer for Hospice? Yes…These things are the tab for your coming here when others could not. These things matter. These things may be better than making tons of money, although as a civil servant I wouldn’t really know. ”

In addition, Oprah Winfrey, the main commencement speaker, was cogent on life’s meaning.

“You will find true success and happiness if you have only one goal. There really is only one, and that is this: to fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being. You want to max out your humanity by using your energy to lift yourself up, your family, and the people around you.”

The key to doing that, she said, is to develop your “internal, moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.” Oprah talked about her work with the Angel Network to assist victims of Hurricanes and other adversity and implored the Harvard graduates, armed with the latest technology to be their own Angel Network.

 

 

 

The school for social capital?

The New American Academy, serving poor non-white  youth in Crown Heights, Brooklyn aims to reinvent education, but it may well be a strong contender for  building social capital as well.

Joel Klein, Former Chancellor,New York City Department of Education has written:

“The New American Academy [NAA] is an innovative, potentially very powerful way to provide education to children. It is both brilliant and scalable and holds out the hope of changing K-12 education in major ways.

This is a big idea, something we desperately need if we are going to significantly change the educational outcomes for our children.”

Educationally, NAA started in 2010 as a public school with kindergarten and first graders.  Each year they will add another grade until they reach fifth grade.  They assign 4 teachers to 60 students who they remain with from grades K-5. The teachers are compensated and promoted based on performance their 60-student flock as well as on peer and supervisory review.  OneMaster teacher (paid $120,000 annually) helps supervise the overall direction among 3 less senior teachers who rotate among 3-4 tables.

The school was founded by a  Shimon Waronker, “who grew up speaking Spanish in South America, became a U.S. Army intelligence officer, became an increasingly observant Jew, studied at yeshiva, joined the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, became a public schoolteacher and then studied at the New York City Leadership Academy, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the former New York Schools chancellor, Joel Klein, founded to train promising school principal candidates.” While a doctoral student in Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program, he conceived the NAA educational approach based on the elite Phillips Exeter Academy and in 2009 won Harvardʼs Phi Delta Kappa Award for Innovation in Education.

Waronker, a Hasidic Jew, who sports a long bears and wears a black  suit,  black hat and a velvet kippa, seems an improbable leader for a non-white inner city school.  But he gained credibility after reviving the failing extremely violent Jordan Mott School  in the depressed South Bronx and overcoming parental wariness ultimately to gain the trust of parents and students.

In principle, the school seems unusually well-designed to promote social capital building among the students and teachers.  There is a high mix of teamwork, the students get a lot of practice in honing civic skills (like making presentations) and sit around larger tables participating in teacher-led group discussions.

“The teachers are not solitary. They are constantly interacting as an ensemble. Students can see them working together and learning from each other. The students are controlled less by uniform rules than by the constant informal nudges from the teachers all around.” [David Brooks]

“He has a grand theory to transform American education…. The American education model, he says, was actually copied from the 18th-century Prussian model designed to create docile subjects and factory workers. He wants schools to operate more like the networked collaborative world of today.” [Brooks]

Brooks says NAA “does a tremendous job of nurturing relationships. Since people learn from people they love, education is fundamentally about the relationship between a teacher and student. By insisting on constant informal contact and by preserving that contact year after year, The New American Academy has the potential to create richer, mentorlike or even familylike relationships for students who are not rich in those things.”

The school is important for at least two reasons.  Much social capital research and socialization research demonstrates that “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree”.  These early years are a critical time to teach the soft non-cognitive skills that are increasingly valuable in today’s society like teamwork, building relationships, negotiating differences, etc.  So this early experience in building social capital, if successful, could be an important model.

Second, we are increasingly discovering in our own research that working class kids (white and non-white) are increasingly falling through society’s cracks and are falling further and further behind their counterparts from more affluent and educated backgrounds.  While it is still to be proven, NAA seems to offer promise for what schools could do to start to close these gaps among kids who happened to be born on the wrong side of the tracks.

I look forward to the research that compares the educational and social outcomes of kids attending NAA against their matched counterparts who don’t.

Read David Brooks’ “The Relationship School” in the NYT (3/23/12)

Read “60 First Graders, 4 Teachers, One Loud Way to Learn” (NYT, 1/11/2011) [Slide show here.]

Interesting upcoming Harvard lunchtime talk on Internet & Social Capital

Flickr photo by www_ukberri_net

On Sept. 8, 2011 at the Harvard Kennedy School at lunchtime from 12-1:30, Ludget Woessmann from Munich, Germany is speaking about his research on “The Internet and Social Capital.”

Woessman is on the faculty of Economics, University of Munich and Head of the Department of Human Capital and Innovation, Ifo Institute for Economic Research.

If interested in attending, e-mail Antonio at pepgadmin@hks.harvard.edu.

The lunchtime talk comes out of a recent CESIfo Working paper titled “Surfing Alone? The Internet and Social Capital: Evidence from an Unforeseeable Technological Mistake.” The paper is co-written by Stefan Bauernschuster, Oliver Falck, and Ludger Woessmann. CESIFO WORKING PAPER NO. 3469 (May 2011)

Abstract: Does the Internet undermine social capital or facilitate inter-personal and civic engagement in the real world? Merging unique telecommunication data with geo-coded German individual-level data, we investigate how broadband Internet affects several dimensions of social capital. One identification strategy uses panel information to estimate value-added models. A second exploits a quasi-experiment in East Germany created by a mistaken technology choice of the state-owned telecommunication provider in the 1990s that still hinders broadband Internet access for many households. We find no evidence that the Internet reduces social capital. For some measures including children’s social activities, we even find significant positive effects.

Measuring happiness comes close to home

Flickr photo by seq

We’ve reported earlier on the UK government’s recent decision to measure the happiness of its citizens.  The latest government to do so is neighboring Somerville, MA.  Somerville, which went by the nickname of “Slummerville” in the 1980s for cheap and affordable 3-decker housing and the highest residential concentration of any community in New England, has recently become more hip and gentrified thanks to the revitalization of places like Inman Square and Davis Square.

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone is a recent graduate of the mid-career program Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and a visionary who has worked with HKS on many other local government measurement projects (SomerStat). The NY Times quotes Curtatone as saying that the project was a “no-brainer” and he noted that “cities keep careful track of their finances, but a bond rating doesn’t tell us how people feel or why they want to raise a family here or relocate a business here.”

The city is collaborating with happiness expert Dan Gilbert at Harvard and ultimately hopes to use these data to see how things like the extension of the subway green line affect happiness or how Somerville’s happiness compares with neighboring towns.

The voluntary survey asks such questions like:

  • How happy do you feel right now? (1-10 scale)How satisfied are you with your life in general? (1-10 scale)
    In general, how similar are you to other people you know? (1-10 scale)
    When making decisions, are you more likely to seek advice or decide for yourself? (1-10 scale)
  • Taking everything into account, how satisfied are you with Somerville as a place to live? (1-10 scale)

The survey also asks residents to rate Somerville’s “beauty or physical setting” [likely fairly low for anyone who has spent time in Somerville], “availability of affordable housing”, quality of local public schools, and effectiveness of local police.

Researchers hope to correlate ratings of well-being, demographics, satisfaction with Somerville amenities, and proximity to various parts of Somerville to unpack what makes residents more or less satisfied.

As the NY Times observes: “Monitoring the citizenry’s happiness has been advocated by prominent psychologists and economists, but not without debate over how to do it and whether happiness is even the right thing for politicians to be promoting. The pursuit of happiness may be an inalienable right, but that is not the same as reporting blissful feelings on a questionnaire. “

See “How Happy Are You? A Census Wants to Know” (NY Times, 4/30/11 by John Tierney)

See Somerville’s voluntary “Wellbeing and Community Survey

See “Somerville, Mass., aims to boost happiness. Can it?” (CS Monitor, 4/4/11 by Mary Helen Miller)

Happiness: how to increase it, UK Government measurement

Flickr photo by greeneydmantis

Two interesting updates on happiness research:

1) Being in the present increases your happiness.  A somewhat surprising finding since  one would think that daydreaming about a Tahitian vacation, a Carlton Fisk’s memorable 1975 world series home run for the Red Sox, or recalling something hilarious one’s children said, would increase your happiness.  But social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth (both from Harvard) found, using an iPod app called trackyourhappiness, that the Buddhists were indeed right.  Dwell in the present and be mindful.  Trackyourhappiness beeped 2,200 volunteer subjects at various times of the day and asked them describe what they were doing, with whom, and how happy they were.  The researchers analyzed the quarter of a million datapoints to determine what activities provided the greatest or least happiness.

Excerpt:

When asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being ”very good,” the people having sex gave an average rating of 90. That was a good 15 points higher than the next-best activity, exercising, which was followed closely by conversation, listening to music, taking a walk, eating, praying and meditating, cooking, shopping, taking care of one’s children and reading. Near the bottom of the list were personal grooming, commuting and working.

When asked their thoughts, the people in flagrante were models of concentration: only 10 percent of the time did their thoughts stray from their endeavors. But when people were doing anything else, their minds wandered at least 30 percent of the time, and as much as 65 percent of the time (recorded during moments of personal grooming, clearly a less than scintillating enterprise).

On average throughout all the quarter-million responses, minds were wandering 47 percent of the time….

”I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there,” Dr. Gilbert says.

Of course, it might well be that the mind wanders because the underlying activities are less “scintillating”; it’s hard to say whether being in the present for commuting or grooming would dramatically increase the happiness levels of doing those activities, although it might reduce traffic accidents and grooming accidents…

See “When The Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays” (NY Times, 11/16/10, by John Tierney)

See here for a recent summary post on happiness research.

2) The British government has followed up on Prime Minister David Cameron’s interest in wellbeing and will begin measurement this year.  The UK government follows countries like Bhutan and Canada in regularly measuring this concept. France has also been recommended to take similar action from a high-powered academic commission advising French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Sarkozy announced in 2009 that he plans to measure happiness and wellbeing as part of France’s economic progress in the near future.

A Guardian piece notes that there is some ” ‘nervousness’… in Downing Street at the prospect of testing the national mood amid deep cuts and last week’s riot in Westminster…”  Cameron has indicated that tracking wellbeing is as important as ever during a downturn, and his commitment to integrate wellbeing centrally into government policy.

The government is charging the national statistician Jil Matheson with crafting the exact happiness questions to add to the Office of National Statistics’ ongoing household survey. Cameron has asked for regular measurement of “subjective wellbeing” (including happiness) and how well Brits are meeting their “life goals”.

The new data, to begin being measured in Spring 2011, may be published quarterly like British crime data, and will be coupled with other social measures like social capital to provide data on Brits’ quality of life.

John Helliwell “told the Guardian: ‘The UK plans are putting into action the two most important elements of the Stiglitz/Sen report: systematically measuring subjective wellbeing as part of a broader national accounting system, and using these data to inform policy choices.’  “

See “Happiness index to gauge Britain’s national mood: Despite ‘nervousness’, David Cameron wants measure of wellbeing to steer government policy” (Guardian, Nov. 14, 2010, by Allegra Stratton)

See David Cameron’s November 25, 2010 transcript regarding UK measurement of wellbeing.

See how UK ranks to other countries in happiness

Datablog: see how our happiness rating compares

Impact of civics education on voting

Flickr photo by Eric Langhorst

Jennifer Bachner (Harvard Government department PhD student) has a recent paper From Classroom to Voting Booth: The Effect of High School Civic Education on Turnout on the impact of civics education on voting.  Moreover, the paper suggests that civics education may help to level the political playing field since the gains in voting are greatest among those who have not been socialized by their families to vote.  33 States now require such civics classes (American Government/Civics) and many more school districts offer such classes.   Almost 80% of US high school graduates have taken a minimum of 0.5 credits in such classes, up from 62% in 1982.

Her research uses the NELS data (National Educational Longitudinal Surveys) of 1998 and 2002 and tracks voting in the national 1992-2006 elections.  She controls for baseline interest in politics and involvement in extra-curriculars, parents’ level of political socialization of their child (discussion of politics and whether they subscribe to a newpaper), the quality of the school in which the child attends, and the child’s race and gender, and parents’ native language and level of education.

Abstract follows:

A healthy democracy requires a citizenry that participates in political life. While interventions such as removing barriers to registration and mobilizing partisans have received frequent scholarly attention, formal civic education has been largely ignored.  Using longitudinal data and a matching analysis, this paper shows that students who complete a year of coursework in American Government/Civics are 3-6 percentage points more likely to vote in an election following high school than those without exposure to civic education.  Further, this effect is magnified among students whose parents are not highly politicized.  Among students who report not discussing politics with their parents, additional coursework is associated with a 7-11 percentage point increase in the probability of voting.  This result suggests that civic education compensates for a relative lack of political socialization at home, and thereby enhances participatory equality.

Note: She finds consistent results, regardless of whether she uses matched or unmatched data;  she uses matching to ensure that those who get the civics classes and those who don’t look as similar as possible to each other on their propensity to get involved politically.

Loneliness contagious? An oxymoron? (UPDATED 5/2013)

It seems contradictory.  How can the lonely (who are largely outside of social networks) get their loneliness through social networks?

It makes sense when you think of people’s movements in social networks over some period of time.  The lonely may not always have been lonely, but gradually, they tend to cluster together on the periphery of social networks, suggesting that the social connections with other lonely people exacerbates any de facto loneliness they experience.  That the lonely would be somewhere on the periphery of social networks is somewhat tautological, but that the lonely would cluster together at the periphery is not, and is surprising.

The study is by well-respected researchers (psychologist John Cacioppo from U. Chicago, Nick Christakis from Harvard’s School of Public Health, and James Fowler, a political scientist at UCSD) and will appear  in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The Washington Post notes:

Although the study did not examine how loneliness spreads, Cacioppo said other research has provided clues. People who feel lonely tend to act in negative ways toward those they do have contact with, perpetuating the behavior and the emotion, he said.

“Let’s say for whatever reason — the loss of a spouse, a divorce — you get lonely. You then interact with other people in a more negative fashion. That puts them in a negative mood and makes them more likely to interact with other people in a negative fashion and they minimize their social ties and become lonely,” Cacioppo said.

[The research comprising almost 5,000 people  interviewed every two years between 1991 and 2001] showed that having a social connection to a lonely person increased the chances of developing feelings of loneliness. A friend of a lonely person was 52 percent more likely to develop feelings of loneliness by the time of the next interview, the analysis showed. A friend of that person was 25 percent more likely, and a friend of a friend of a friend was 15 percent more likely.The effect was most powerful for a friend, followed by a neighbor, and was much weaker on spouses and siblings, the researchers found. Loneliness spread more easily among women than men, perhaps because women were more likely to articulate emotions, Cacioppo said.

The researchers said the effect could not be the result of lonely people being more likely to associate with other lonely people because they showed the effect over time. “It’s not a birds-of-a-feather-flock-together effect,” Christakis said.

See “Feeling Lonely?  Chances Are You’re Not Alone” (Washington Post, Rob Stein, 12/1/09)

See also blog posts on the contagion effect of happiness, smoking, and obesity.

See article “The Science of Loneliness” (New Republic, Judith Shulevitz, May 2013)

What leads to happiness?

(Flickr photo by adwriter)

(Flickr photo by adwriter)

The Atlantic Magazine has a very interesting story called “What Makes us Happy?” (June 2009)

The author was granted rare access to a longitudinal surveyof 268 men who entered Harvard College in the late 1930s; Harvard scholars tracked them over the last 8 decades through adolescence, “war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age.”  [The author suggests that the Harvard scholar who has guided this study (The W.T.  Grant Study) over the last roughly half century, George Vaillant, may have used the study to try to make up for deficiencies in his own childhood, suffered when his father committed suicide.]

“Yet, even as he takes pleasure in poking holes in an innocent idealism, Vaillant says his hopeful temperament is best summed up by the story of a father who on Christmas Eve puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, ‘Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break.’  The other boy runs to him and says, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!’

“The story gets to the heart of Vaillant’s angle on the Grant Study. His central question is not how much or how little trouble these men met, but rather precisely how—and to what effect—they responded to that trouble. His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of  ‘adaptations,’ or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called ‘defense mechanisms’) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

“Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

“At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or psychotic, adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the immature adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. Neurotic defenses are common in ‘normal’ people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or mature, adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

Vaillant found in general that people improve at adapting. Toddlers often exhibit psychotic adaptations and older children commonly show immature adaptations, but these disappear as children age.  In the Grant Study, adolescents used immature defenses twice as frequently as mature defenses, but by mid-life the ratio had reversed: they were four times more likely to respond in mature ways.  Vaillant also noticed that altruism and humor grew more prevalent between the ages of 50 and 75.  [It is for these reasons that Vaillant examined the subjects over their life trajectory rather than at a fixed point in time, because the progression or lack of progression in defenses was especially important.]

What were Vaillant’s conclusions?

  • Relationships were the only thing that really matters: “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, that leads to successful aging”, Vaillant said. Aside from an individual’s defenses, relationships at age 47 were the strongest predictor of late-life adjustment.  93 percent of those men who were happy at 65 had a close sibling when younger. Those who didn’t have close siblings found these connections in parents or uncles, or mentors or friends.
  • Vaillant dismisses social determinism. Social ease predicted good psychosocial adjustment in college and early adulthood, but became less significant with time. And shy or anxious kids by age 70 were just as likely to be “happy-well” as outgoing kids by age 70.
  • Besides relationships and mature defenses, the best predictors of thriving (physical and psychological) in senior years were “education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise, and healthy weight”. If one had 5+ of these factors at age 50, half were  happy-well by 80 and only 7.5% “sad-sick.” Conversely, no one with with three or fewer of these health factors at age 50, ended up happy-well at age 80, regardless of physical shape at age 50.
  • Cholesterol levels at age 50 did not predict happy-wellness in old age.
  • Being fit in college explained late-life mental health better than late-life physical health.
  • Of the men diagnosed as depressed by age 50, over 70% were dead or chronically ill by 63. Pessimists aged far less well than optimists.

Read the Atlantic article here by Joshua Wolf Shenk “What Makes Us Happy?“.

The Boston Globe also had an interesting recent article also on happiness called “Perfectly Happy:  The New Science of Measuring Happiness Has Transformed Self-Help” (by Drake Bennett, 5/10/09)

See other recent posts on happiness “Happiness is Contagious“, “Do Fat Friends make you fat (and less happy)?”   and “Gallup takes daily pulse of American happiness/Krueger’s interesting happiness research.”

Young Americans dropping out of religion, other American Grace findings by Putnam/Campbell

Saying Grace - Flickr photo by ImCait

Saying Grace - Flickr photo by ImCait

Robert D. Putnam (Harvard) and David Campbell (Notre Dame) recently previewed selected themes from their forthcoming book American Grace at the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that draws a select group of the leading journalists on religion in America.

As Michael Gerson, ex-speechwriter to President George Bush and one of the Pew Forum attendees, noted in his opening paragraph in a recent nationally syndicated and well-nuanced op-ed in the Washington Post:

“There is a book that everyone will be talking about — when it appears over a year from now. American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives, being written by…Putnam and… Campbell, is already creating a buzz. Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is the pre-eminent academic expert on American civic life. Campbell is his rising heir. And the book they haven’t yet finished will make just about everyone constructively uncomfortable.”

Putnam and Campbell’s analysis draws on the Faith Matters data they collected — a national, authoritative large-scale, hour-long survey on religion (beliefs, belonging and behavior),  social and political engagement, and religious and political beliefs.  They followed up in a very rare panel survey, reinterviewing the same respondents 6-9 months later to understand the stability of our religion and religious beliefs and to get traction on the issue of causation.  Their research also entails a dozen to fifteen in-depth case studies of religious denominations and churches of many stripes across all parts of the nation.

American Grace finds evidence of unprecedented polarization along religious and political lines, with politics driving changes in religious attendance rather than the reverse!  But amidst the deepening divides, they find a startlingly high level of support on all sides for religious diversity. Most deeply religious Americans reject the idea of a theocratic society run by Christian ayatollahs, while most secular Americans are quite comfortable with the idea of a society infused with religious and moral values.  In short, they argue, America today represents a historical rarity—a society that is both deeply religious and deeply tolerant.  [For example, Americans believe that Americans of other religions can go to heaven, even Christians of non-Christians.  Moreover, 8 of 10 Americans think there are "basic truths in many religions" and 85% of Americans say that religious diversity is good for the country.]

Here are a few of their interesting findings:

  • Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of 5-6 times the historic rate (30-40% have no religion today versus 5-10% a generation ago).  But youth’s religious disaffection is largely due to discomfort with religiosity having been tied to conservative politics.  Putnam and Campbell expect, given the remarkable history of American religious entrepreneurship (from Mormonism to revival meetings to megachurches), that this disaffection from religion is temporary: religious entrepreneurs will rise to offer these young Americans the less politicized religion that they crave.
  • Americans today inherit both religion and congregation far less than their parents and grandparents did and there is remarkable religious fluidity, with between 1/3 and 1/2 of all Americans changing religion from the one they were born into.  [The lower bound does not count a denominational shift like that from Methodists to Calvinists as a switch and only counts a change in religion from Judaism to Buddhism or from Baptist to no-religion.]  And there has been remarkably more entrepreneurial sorting of congregations and congregation shopping with congregants finding a religious home within a denomination that maximally meets their wants and needs (sometimes through stricter “churches”, sometimes through looser ones).
  • There is a remarkable degree of religious bridging in our social networks: approximately 70% of Americans have at least some extended family of a different religion than they are, and this rises to 75% for closest friends, and 85% of Americans who live among at least some neighbors of a different religion.  The interlinkage of these religious networks helps to constrain any message of intolerance that parishioners get from the pulpit.
  • Religious Americans are better citizens than non-religious ones (they give more to secular causes, volunteer more for secular causes, and join more, to mention a few markers of good citizenship). However, it is not their particular theology that predicts good citizenship, but the extent to which they are embedded in a friendship network of religious others (regardless of their religion). [Putnam refers to these religious friends as "powerful, supercharged friends."]  So it is religious social networks, not teachings from the pulpit that are key to them being 3-4 times more generous than the most secular Americans.

American Grace will come out in October 2010.

Michael Gerson’s syndicated Op-Ed “Religion and Our Civic Behavior” is here. (Wash. Post, 5/8/09)

See “Getting to Know You” (Wall Street Journal by Naomi Schaefer Riley, 5/15/09) [which discusses the extent of religious bridging social capital in America, and how having friends of different religions changes ones views toward that religion]

Also, see “Religious People Make Better Citizens” (BeliefNet.org)

Excerpt below from “Religion and Our Civic Behavior” By Michael Gerson:

“[R]eligious affiliation has declined in America since World War II, especially among the young. The change was not gradual or linear. It arrived, according to Putnam, in “one shock and two aftershocks.” The shock came in the 1960s. As conservatives have asserted, the philosophy of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is an alternative to religious affiliation (though some of the rocking religious would dispute the musical part). Baby boomers were far less religious than their parents at the same age — the probable result, says Putnam, of a “very rapid change in morals and customs.”

“This retreating tide of religion affected nearly every denomination equally — except that it was less severe among evangelicals. While not dramatically increasing their percentage of the American population, evangelicals did increase their percentage among the religious in America. According to Putnam, religious “entrepreneurs” such as Jerry Falwell organized and channeled the conservative religious reaction against the 1960s into the religious right — the first aftershock.

“But this reaction provoked a reaction — the second aftershock. The politicization of religion by the religious right, argues Putnam, caused many young people in the 1990s to turn against religion itself, adopting the attitude: “If this is religion, I’m not interested.” The social views of this younger cohort are not entirely predictable — both the pro-life and the homosexual-rights movement have made gains. But Americans now in their 20s are much more secular than the baby boomers were at the same stage of life. About 30 percent or 35 percent are religiously unaffiliated…. Putnam calls this “a stunning development.” As many liberals suspected, the religious right was not good for religion.

The result of the shock and aftershocks is polarization. The general level of religiosity in America hasn’t changed much over the years. But, as Putnam says, “more people are very religious and many are not at all.” And these beliefs have become “correlated with partisan politics….There are fewer liberals in the pews and fewer unchurched conservatives.”