Looking for upward economic mobility? Make friends at church (Opinion)

Ted Gaines / Guest column
Ted Gaines

It’s tough to survive in California if you’re poor. Green-energy schemes drive our electricity rates 80% above the national average. Gas prices make every trip to the gas station gut-wrenching. The median home price is above $800,000 and our state sales and income taxes are the highest in the nation. It’s a state that leaves people shaking their heads in hopelessness and asking, “how will I ever get ahead?”

Our state could make a million policy changes to prevent our citizens from living paycheck to paycheck, but that solution is not likely found under the Democrat-led Capitol dome. What if that solution was found in our churches?

Recently, Harvard University economist Raj Chetty and a team of researchers analyzed the Facebook accounts of more than 72 million users ages 25-44 and found that cross-income friendships are a key determinant of upward mobility. That is, if you are poor, it helps your financial prospects to have wealthier friends.

That may not sound surprising, since exposure to upper income people could introduce others to behavioral norms, entrepreneurial ideas, or investment habits (among many other possible influences) that have contributed to wealth creation, but the study goes on to elaborate where those friendships develop. You might think schools are the answer, but in the absence of vouchers for school choice, most public schools are just mirrors of their neighborhoods and replicate the residential income stratification in the local housing market.

College? Sure! At least a little bit. But Chetty’s study found that college friendships also cluster by economic status. There is some intermixing, of course, but not much. Friendship groups there tended to reflect socioeconomic status, not transcend it.

Sports were another likely answer that proved underwhelming in Chetty’s research. They, too, tended to cluster people by income and not open the doors of friendship across wealth lines.

Chetty did find one place in particular where people of all incomes were vastly more likely to become friends: church. Chetty found that poorer people are about 20% more likely to make wealthy friends at church.

To be sure, most churches also pull from their local environments and aren’t immune to some of the same income sorting mechanics found in schools. Some of the megachurches, of course, pull from a wider area and include more members from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

But the real magic at church appears to be God, not geography. At church, shared faith seems to supersede the day-to-day, worldly issues that can be very different for the rich and poor, making conversations and relationships difficult to start or sustain. God is the same whether you are worried about filling up your gas tank or buying a vacation home. He is the bond that ties us all together, man and woman, young and old, rich and poor.

Church attendance can bring us closer to God, strengthen our families, bring us peace and happiness, and help us build loving, supportive communities. These advantages have long been known and appreciated by those who make church worship a regular part of their lives.

There are a thousand factors that can help people find financial success. Besides Chetty’s findings, a strong family can provide emotional support, startup help, or even provide childcare that can free up someone to do the work needed to flourish. Many entrepreneurs have succeeded wildly simply by entering an established field and outworking their competition. A law degree will likely lead to excellent earnings, regardless of one’s friend group.

But we should not ignore God. With this recent research showing that church might unlock upward mobility, worship can nourish the pocketbook as well as the soul.

Senator Ted Gaines (Ret.) was elected to represent the Board of Equalization’s First District. He is a leading taxpayer advocate, defender of Prop. 13, and is committed to providing trustworthy and transparent representation for nearly 10 million constituents in 30 counties of northern, eastern, and southern California. For more information, visit

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