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.
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.