Category Archives: education

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.]

White achievement gap by class exceeds black-white gap

White class gap in math test scores as great now as black-white gap in the racial backwater prior to Brown vs. Board of Ed.

The New York Times had a powerful and alarming story today “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Show“.

One thing that the story didn’t point out is that the class gaps even just within non-Hispanic whites are growing and this also exceeds the black-white test score gap.  I’ve appended a chart showing the within whites 90/10 math scores over time [comparing the math scores of a white child in a family earning $160,000 to the math scores over time of a white child in a family earning $17,500 in 2008].  [This is from an Appendix to Sean Reardon's paper, Figure 5.A2.]


The first graph shows that by 2000, the within white class gap (90/10) ratio has now risen to almost 1.25. It started rising with the birth cohort born around 1972, or in other words high school seniors around 1990.  This white class gap has risen about 65% from 0.75 in the early 1970s to almost 1.25 by 2000.   Reardon notes that 1.0 on this scale is about the difference in math between a 5th grader and an 8th grader.  So the white class gap is probably nearing the difference between an average 5th grader and a 9th grader.  [Interestingly, the white class gaps for math are greater than the class gaps within Blacks or Hispanics, probably because the wealth gap between the 90th and 10th percentiles for whites are wider than the similar wealth gap among Hispanics or Blacks.]

The second graph solid line shows whites and non-whites together but the dotted line on the second chart (the black-white racial gap) has been almost halved over the last 60 years from about 1.2, dropping to around 0.65 by 2000 (about the difference between a 5th grader and a 7th grader).

So even if you take race completely out of the equation, the class gap in math (and reading scores) within whites is almost DOUBLE the racial gap along these same measures and upper class whites are about 2 grade levels ahead compared to the black-white gap.  And the within white class gap in math test scores is about as great as the black-white test score gap in math was in the racial backwater leading up to Brown vs. Board of Education when the Supreme Court recognized that racially separate schools were inherently unequal.

The conclusion is that our focus on racial inequality in education has been important in halving these differences, but in an era of deindustrialization of America and the decline of good-paying high-school education jobs, we need to be paying as great attention to class gaps in math and English achievement if we hope to have vibrant social mobility in the decades ahead for the white working and lower middle class.

See somewhat related strong Op-Ed by Nick Kristof “The White Underclass” (2/9/12) (acknowledging some of the social truth of the cultural and family collapse of the white working class as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart does, while also identifying the much larger structural changes taking place as well which Murray does not).

See earlier blog post on social mobility in America.

Increasing US urban residential segregation and decline of middle-class communities

Flickr photo by OldOnliner

A new report by Kendra Bischoff and Sean Reardon for the Russell Sage Foundation and Brown University found that, as a likely consequence of widening American income inequality, fewer and fewer Americans  live in urban middle-class neighborhoods and urban communities are instead increasingly polarized into rich and poor neighborhoods.  They call this increased “income segregation” or “family income segregation.”  Their report studies 117 metropolitan areas with a population of 500,000 or more in 2007 and examines these patterns at the census tract level, covering roughly two thirds of the US population.

This is bad news for the opportunity to build bridging social capital (social ties across race or social class), bad for building any sense that we’re all in this together, and by insulating the rich increasingly from the poor, makes it less likely that the rich will want to take action to help the poor (in the same way as the rich become less interested in public education investment if they send their kids to private schools or become less interested in safe streets if they live in a gated community with a private police force).  This research shows how children are less likely to grow up socializing with and playing with children of other socio-economic backgrounds, especially in an era where mandatory school-busing has come under attack.

These trends are all prior to the 2008 great recession, so it is impossible until 2013 to know whether that exacerbated these patterns or ameliorated them somewhat, and even then we probably won’t know about specific neighborhoods.

Bischoff points out that these segregation indices would change during the recession only if foreclosures or job losses force people to move, then income segregation could change.  For instance, if low- and moderate- income families need to move to lower-income neighborhoods, urban residential segregation would increase (more clustering).  Alternatively, if middle income families lose income, but remain in their homes (or neighborhoods), then residential income segregation would decrease as neighborhoods as increased family income volatility leads neighborhoods to become more diverse in income terms. The American Community Survey may never be able to resolve what happened at low levels of geography.

Excerpt:

As overall income inequality grew in the last four decades, high- and low-income families have become increasingly less likely to live near one another. Mixed income neighborhoods have grown rarer, while affluent and poor neighborhoods have grown much more common. In fact, the share of the population in large and moderate-sized metropolitan areas who live in the poorest and most affluent neighborhoods has more than doubled since 1970, while the share of families living in middle-income neighborhoods dropped from 65 percent to 44 percent. The residential isolation of the both poor and affluent families has grown over the last four decades, though affluent families have been generally more residentially isolated than poor families during this period. Income segregation among African Americans and Hispanics grew more rapidly than among non-Hispanic whites, especially since 2000. These trends are consequential because people are affected by the character of the local areas in which they live. The increasing concentration of income and wealth (and therefore of resources such as schools, parks, and public services) in a small number of neighborhoods results in greater disadvantages for the remaining neighborhoods where low- and middle-income families live.

Key findings, based on Census American Community Survey data:

  • From 2000 to 2007, family income segregation grew significantly in almost all metropolitan areas (in 89 percent of the large and moderate-sized metropolitan areas). This extends a trend over the period 1970-2000 during which income segregation grew dramatically. In 1970 only 15 percent of families were in neighborhoods that we classify as either affluent (neighborhoods where median incomes were greater than 150 percent of median income in their metropolitan areas) or poor (neighborhoods where median incomes were less than 67 percent of metropolitan median income). By 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such
    neighborhoods.
  • The affluent are more segregated from other Americans than the poor are. That is, high-income families are much less likely to live in neighborhoods with middle- and low-income families than low-income families are to live in neighborhoods with middle- and high-income families. This has been true for the last 40 years.
  • Income segregation among black and Hispanic families increased much more than did income segregation among white families from 1970 to 2007. Notably, income segregation among black and Hispanic families grew very sharply from 2000 to 2007. Income segregation among black and Hispanic families is now much higher than among white families.

Read “Growth in the Residential Segregation of Families by Income, 1970-2009” (Sean Reardon, Kendra Bischoff).

See NY Times story, “Middle-Class Areas Shrink as Income Gap Grows, New Report Finds” (11/16/11, by Sabrina Tavernise) which also shows this pattern for Philadelphia, which showed the biggest increase in income segregation over this period as well as the overall decline in middle-class neighborhoods and the rise of poor neighborhoods.

See earlier blog post: “Stalled upward social mobility in the US”

See somewhat related post by Liberty Street Economics (the blog of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) that shows both that median wages were growing fastest in the high-skilled occupations, and also that job growth was fastest in both the high-skilled and low-skilled occupations and slowest in middle-class job occupation.

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)

Upward Mobility Gap

Flickr photo by Herve Demers

Doyle McManus (of the L.A. Times) has a nice piece citing Robert Putnam on some of our unpublished research evincing “canaries in the coalmine” that are likely to block upward mobility in the US in the decades ahead if unremedied.

Opportunity in America isn’t what it used to be either. Among children born into low-income households, more than two-thirds grow up to earn a below-average income, and only 6 percent make it all the way up the ladder into the affluent top one-fifth of income earners, according to a study by economists at Washington’s Brookings Institution…. Children born into poverty in Canada, Britain, Germany or France have a statistically better chance of reaching the top than poor kids do in the United States….

[In addition to the decline of public schools,] Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argues that thanks partly to the rise of two-income households, intermarriage between rich and poor has declined, choking off another historical upward path for the underprivileged….”We’re becoming two societies, two Americas,” Putnam told me recently. “There’s a deepening class divide that shows up in many places. It’s not just a matter of income. Education is becoming the key discriminant in American life. Family structure is part of it too.”…

“Success in life increasingly depends on how smart you were in choosing your parents,” Putnam said. “And that flies in the face of the fundamental American bargain — that every kid ought to have access to the same opportunities.”…Most Americans accept inequality in the economy as long as the ladder of opportunity is accessible to anyone who wants to work hard. The best way for America to reclaim its self-image as a land of opportunity is to ensure that every kid has access to a decent education — now more than ever the first step onto the ladder. That’s why bipartisan education reform isn’t just about fixing schools; it’s about repairing the fabric of American society.

Read “The Upward Mobility Gap” (Doyle McManus, L.A. Times, 1/2/11)

See also some interesting recent articles in NY Times on how pay of superstars stifles everybody else, and another article that attempts to reconcile Americans’ dislike of equalizing income with declining mobility by showing how in America being middle class is more driven by aspirations than income.  And finally, research conducted at Harvard Business School that ironically shows that most Americans would prefer an income distribution more similar to Sweden’s (far more egalitarian than in the US) over the current American income distribution.

Paul Krugman in “A Tale of Two Moralities” (NY Times Op-Ed, January 15, 2011) writes: “…I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.”

Michael Gerson (Washington Post columnist) also had a very thoughtful column on this issue, indicating that this issue (upward mobility) should be the issue that Republicans should be discussing.  See “The economic debate that we should be having” (Dec. 14, 2010)  Gerson writes:

“…the main reasons for inequality are failing schools, depressed and dysfunctional communities and fragmented families. For the most part, inequality does not result from a lack of consumption by the poor but from a lack of social capital and opportunity.

This does not release conservatives from responsibility because the distribution of social capital and opportunity is dramatically unequal. Economic inequality can be justified as the reward for greater effort – so long as there is also social mobility. In the absence of mobility, capitalism becomes a caste system. And this is what America, in violation of its self-image, threatens to become. The United States has less upward economic mobility among lower-income families than Canada, Finland or Sweden. Americans who are born into the middle class have a roughly equal chance of ascending or descending the economic ladder. But Americans born poor are likely to stay on its lowest rungs.

Addressing the actual causes of inequality should be common ground for the center-left and center-right – and politically appealing to American voters, who are generally more concerned about opportunity than income equality. A mobility agenda might include measures to discourage teen pregnancy; increase the rewards for work; encourage wealth-building and entrepreneurship; reform preschool programs; improve infant and child health; increase teacher quality; and increase high school graduation rates and college attendance among the poor. Children of low-income parents who gain a college degree triple their chance of earning $85,000 a year or more. If America had the same fraction of single-parent families as it had in 1970, the child poverty rate would be about 30 percent lower.”


Walkable communities richer in social capital

Flickr photo by dePrefundis

A UNH study, utilizing the short-form Saguaro Social Capital Benchmark Survey, found that more walkable neighborhoods had higher levels of social capital in measures like trust of neighbors and participation in community events, such as entertaining friends in one’s house, working on a community project, volunteering or attending a club meeting.

Shannon Rogers, lead Principal Investigator for the study with UNH’s Natural Resources and Earth System Science (NRESS) program, based the results on surveys of  10 neighborhoods in Portsmouth, NH and 10 in Manchester, NH.

Rogers notes that other studies find that residents more social capital, have better health, higher levels of happiness and greater  economic success.

The study obviously can’t rule out reverse causality.  It’s quite possible that the people who choose to live in more walkable communities do so because they value greater levels of interaction and engagement and it is this predisposition rather than the layout of the city that drives levels of civic engagement.

The article, “Examining Walkability and Social Capital as Indicators of Quality of Life at the Municipal and Neighborhood Scales,” appears in the recent issue of Applied Research in Quality of Life.

Abstract: Walkability has been linked to quality of life in many ways. Health related benefits of physical exercise, the accessibility and access benefits of being able to walk to obtain some of your daily needs, or the mental health and social benefits of reduced isolation are a few of the many positive impacts on quality of life that can result from a walkable neighborhood. In the age of increasing energy costs and climate considerations, the ability to walk to important locations is a key component of sustainable communities. While the health and environmental implications of walkable communities are being intensively studied, the social benefits have not been investigated as broadly. Social capital is a measure of an individual’s or group’s networks, personal connections, and involvement. Like economic and human capital, social capital is considered to have important values to both individuals and communities. Through a case study approach this article argues that the generation and maintenance of social capital is another important component of quality of life that may be facilitated by living in a walkable community. Residents living in neighborhoods of varying built form and thus varying levels of walkability in three communities in New Hampshire were surveyed about their levels of social capital and travel behaviors. Comparisons between the more walkable and less walkable neighborhoods show that levels of social capital are higher in more walkable neighborhoods.

Praying alone is no fun; having friends at church makes you happier

Flickr photo by Shavar Ross

[Also cross-posted on the American Grace Blog]
American Grace research team members Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam have an article in the prestigious American Sociological Review demonstrating that religion actually makes you happier and it works through having close friends at church.

“Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction,” said Chaeyoon Lim, assistant professor of sociology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. “Listening to sermons or praying is not enough.  In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient that makes people happier.”

A host of studies have found a correlation between happiness and religiosity, but they suffered from the vulnerabilities of any single shot survey. Was religiosity truly causing happiness, was happiness causing greater religiosity, or was some third factor responsible (say an extroverted gene that made people both happier and more likely to go to “church”)? With the large nationally representative Faith Matters surveys, which interviewed the same Americans twice in a 6-9 month period, Lim and Putnam demonstrate that increased church attendance over that 6-9 month period increases life satisfaction. Surprisingly, they find that more overtly religious factors like theology (e.g., belief about the type of God or the afterlife or what religion you belong to) and private religious practices (e.g., experiencing God’s presence in your life or saying Grace or frequency of prayer) did not predict greater life satisfaction.

So what explained the power of religious attendance? Lim and Putnam found that it was having close friends in one’s house of worship. While friends in general cause people to have greater life satisfaction, friends at church serve as “super-charged” friends, with an even stronger impact on life satisfaction than secular friends.

It’s not clear exactly why close friends at church have such strong power. Lim and Putnam speculate that these church friends anchor “a strong sense of belonging in these religious communities” and provide parishioners with “morally-infused social support. In other words, if one seeks life satisfaction, it is neither faith nor communities alone that are important, but communities of faith. For life satisfaction, praying together seems better than either bowling together or praying alone. These findings suggest that religious leaders should invest more of their time, treasure and talent in deepening the social dimensions of congregational life, such as through small support or worship groups, potlucks and choirs. This is likely to pay dividends to their congregants in making them happier and also benefit the religious leaders by making their congregants more likely to stay active religious members.”

Specifically, they find that those who attend church sporadically but nonetheless have close friends at church, likely working through religious spouses, are quite high in life satisfaction whereas those who attend church regularly but don’t have church friends are not. “According to the study, 33 percent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report that they are ‘extremely satisfied’ with their lives” (a 10 on the 1 to 10 question scale). “In comparison, only 19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation report that they are extremely satisfied. On the other hand, 23 percent of people who attend religious services only several times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their congregation are extremely satisfied with their lives. Finally, 19 percent of people who never attend religious services, and therefore have no friends from congregation, say they are extremely satisfied with their lives.”

Note: Putnam and Lim control for the all the natural demographic correlates that might be causing spurious findings.

The Faith Matters findings apply to the three main Christian traditions (Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, and Catholic). “We also find similar patterns among Jews and Mormons, even with a much smaller sample size,” said Lim, who noted that there were not enough Muslims or Buddhists in the data set to test the model for those groups.

It’s possible that there are other real-world secular examples of groups where in-group friendships provide the same level of ‘morally-infused” social support: e.g., 12-step programs, or zealous environmental activist networks, or uncorrupted unions, or MADD. Since these findings are relatively new, we haven’t firmly tested to find secular equivalents of these morally-infused networks although it is clear that there is nothing in the US that has anything like the frequency of friends of church, since so many more Americans are in the pews on a Sunday than participating weekly in an environmental group or a 12-step program. The Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron has made clear to us in conversations, given much lower levels of religiosity in that country, that he is actively interested in finding out if there are secular takeaways from these life satisfaction findings that could be applied in the UK without exhorting more Brits to attend and make friends at church; Cameron’s interest is also sparked by his recent decision to actively measure life satisfaction in the UK as a key indicator of how well government is doing.

We’ll also be doing some further testing in additional surveying we are doing to try to understand more about what makes “close friends at church” so powerful. We welcome your thoughts…

CNN notes: “it is worth examining in the future why this study did not find the same link between happiness and spirituality that others did, the authors say. This may have to do with how different aspects of religion are measured. For example, those who reported that they ‘feel God’s love’ seemed to have more life satisfaction than those who did not, but this did not apply for similar questions about belief in God. Also, it is impossible to draw conclusions about whether ‘feeling God’s love’ causes happiness or vice versa. Could other networks of people have the same effect on happiness? The authors say that if this is possible, it’s hard to think of a non-religious context with a similar strength of identity, intensity of participation in ritual, and great scale and scope of the people in it.”

Cite: “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review, 75(6), December 2010.

Beyond CNN, see news stories in USA TodayNational Post, Discovery, Live Science, Science News, TIMES of India, Montreal Gazette, and Daily Mail.