In this important book the Nobel Prize winner Robert William Fogel bravely and successfully rushes into territory upon which virtually all other economists fear to tread. Although the book is predictably full of quantitative data, it also focuses on American religious history. Furthermore, unlike most economists—even a conservative like Milton Friedman—Fogel argues that contemporary American poverty will be effectively reduced not by transferring income, but by promoting “spiritual resources,” such as a family ethic and a work ethic.
Fogel’s specialty is economic history; he is best known for his pathbreaking study Time on the Cross, which examined the economic efficiency of the use of slave labor in the antebellum South. His new book, by contrast, is much broader in scope, focusing on the political significance of four great American religious revivals. Fogel’s account begins with the First Great Awakening, ushered in by theologian Jonathan Edwards in the 1730s; it culminates in what Fogel calls the Fourth Great Awakening, dating from about 1960, which is characterized by a remarkable upsurge in the membership of “enthusiastic” (as opposed to mainstream) religious denominations.
The bulk of the book contrasts the ways in which the Third and Fourth Great Awakenings approach the problems of American poverty and inequality. The Third Great Awakening began in the 1890s, with the rise of the Social Gospel movement in American Protestantism. It saw poverty primarily as the product of social conditions; its proposed remedy was income redistribution and other social reforms, aiming to achieve equality of conditions. In contrast, the Fourth Great Awakening (exemplified by Christian conservatives) recommends personal responsibility and the promotion of equality of opportunity as means to reduce poverty.
Fogel himself is neither a Christian nor a conservative. In his own words, he is “a secular child of the Third Great Awakening” who accepts “its basic ethics and the basic thrust of its reforms.” The big news in his book is thus his declaration that “Like it or not, the reform agenda spelled out by the religious Right, with its focus on the restoration of the traditional family and its emphasis on equality of opportunity, more fully addresses the new issues of egalitarianism than does the agenda of the Third Great Awakening.”
Fogel comes to this conclusion in part because he believes that attempts to redistribute income to the poor have already succeeded—a lot of money has already been redistributed: Fogel calculates that almost 20 percent of the income of the richest fifth of U.S. households is currently being transferred to the poor, and concludes that “the egalitarian agenda of the Third Great Awakening has been largely accomplished.” The real income of the poorest fifth of American households has “increased nineteenfold between 1890 and 1990,” so that “the poor of the 1990s are relatively rich by 1890 standards.”
Unfortunately, the gains of the poor have been only material, not spiritual. Thus Fogel notes that sharp “increases in indicators of moral decay” (rates of illegitimate births and crime) followed upon the War on Poverty of the 1960s and 1970s. In his judgment, “The theory that society is the source of sin has undermined personal responsibility for bad behavior.” The proponents of the Fourth Great Awakening rightly respond as follows: “Cultural reform must be pursued primarily at the individual level, with an empathy and warmth better achieved by churches and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous than by government bureaucracies.”
Transferring income can no longer do much to reduce poverty, since “the most intractable forms of poverty are related to the unequal distribution of spiritual (immaterial) resources.” Because “immaterial resources [are] essential to an escape from the underclass,” an effective antipoverty program today—whether administered by government or the private sector—must somehow inculcate virtues like a family ethic, a work ethic, and a sense of discipline.
In general, spiritual resources are most effectively transferred “very early in the life of the recipient.” Thus Fogel pins his hopes primarily on mentoring programs for young parents and their children; such programs would make use of “the increasingly large number of retired men and women who have abundant spiritual resources.” Noting the greater success of Catholic as opposed to public schools in teaching inner-city children, he also highlights “the potential role of parochial schools in addressing the maldistribution of spiritual resources.”
Fogel contends that volunteer workers (rather than social-service professionals) will be at the center of future antipoverty efforts. Unfortunately, his treatment of volunteer mentoring is overly abstract. Although the book is highly quantitative, it does not say how many volunteers are already doing the work that Fogel commends (or how many more would be needed to do it comprehensively). Furthermore, Fogel gives no sense of how much mentoring is needed to be effective: An hour a week or an hour a day? Nor does he indicate how mentoring actually works in practice: What concretely does one say or do to create a sense of self-discipline in a troubled, fatherless adolescent?
Still, his book is obviously not meant to be a survey of mentoring activities (or a “how to” manual for prospective mentors). Instead it is a broad-ranging, theoretical explanation of the impact of religion upon American social policy, and of the changing nature of American social problems over time. Judged by that standard, it is an enormously ambitious, thought-provoking, and impressive book.
Joel Schwartz is a contributing editor of Philanthropy. He is the author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000, forthcoming from Indiana University Press in October.