Nearly every parent on Earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government anti-poverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t.
Most Democratic anti-poverty programs consist of transferring money, providing jobs or otherwise addressing the material deprivation of the poor. Most Republican anti-poverty programs likewise consist of adjusting the economic incentives or regulatory barriers faced by the disadvantaged.
It’s easy to understand why policymakers would skirt the issue of character. Nobody wants to be seen blaming the victim. 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 past 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.
Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated that delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood. Carol Dweck’s work has shown that people who have a growth mindset – who believe their basic qualities can be developed through hard work – do better than people who believe their basic talents are fixed and innate. Angela Duckworth has shown how important grit and perseverance are to lifetime outcomes.
People who have studied character development through the ages have generally found hectoring lectures don’t help. The superficial “character education” programs implanted into some schools of late haven’t done much either. Instead, sages over years have generally found at least four effective avenues to make it easier to climb. Government-supported programs can contribute in all realms.
• 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 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.
• 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 to become teen moms.
• Exemplars: Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the 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.
• 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 University 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 retard mobility and ruin dreams.