Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that the character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government antipoverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn't.
As Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution pointed out recently in National Affairs, both orthodox progressive and conservative approaches treat individuals as if they were abstractions-as if they were part of species of "hollow man" whose destiny is shaped by economic structure alone, and not by character and behavior.
It's easy to understand why policy makers would skirt the issue of character. Nobody wants to be seen blaming the victim-spreading the calumny that the poor are that way because they don't love their children enough, or don't have good values. Furthermore, most sensible People wonder if government can do anything to alter character anyway.
The problem is that policies that ignore character and behavior have produced disappointing results. Social research over the last decade or so has reinforced the point that would have been self-evident in any other era-that if you can't help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.
Summarizing the researth in this area, Reeves estimates that measures of drive and self-control influence academic achievement roughly as much as cognitive skills. Recent research has also shown that there are very different levels of self-control up and down in the income scale. Researchers often use dull tests to see who can focus attention and stay on task. Children raised in the top income quintile were two and a half times more likely to score well on these tests than students raised in the bottom quintile.
People who have studied character development through the ages have generally found hectoring lectures don't help. The superficial "character eduction" programs implanted into some schools of late haven't done much either. Instead, sages over years have generally found that at least effective avenues to make it easier to climb. Government supported programs can contribute in all realms.
First, habits. If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, K.I.P.P.(Knowledge is power program) schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self restraint.
Second, opportunity. Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self denial now and something better down the road.Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely become teen moms.
Third, exemplars. Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder.
Fourth, standards. People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria.
Character development is an idiosyncratic, mysterious process. But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.