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Class in America: Want to Get Ahead? Try Church

When Fr. Richard Aguilar was growing up, as a working class kid in San Antonio, the church was his leg up. Now, fewer low-income kids go to church.
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Attending religious services regularly can confer many things besides salvation. For generations in America, houses of worship were places where families built relationships with similar families, and where clergy could provide the kind of mentorship that helped working class kids step up the economic ladder.

These days, though, young people are less likely to say they belong to a religion than their parents were at the same age. And the gap is not just generational — it’s also about class.

Social scientists are finding that in the last 40 years, teenagers whose parents are in the bottom third on the socioeconomic scale stopped coming to services twice as fast as kids from the top.

These scholars and many members of the clergy worry that a growing religious attendance gap between rich and poor children is contributing to class inequality by stripping poor kids of a valuable source of mentorship.

It’s just one manifestation of growing inequality in family income and wealth that’s left poor children with less support.

Richard Aguilar is an Episcopal priest in Arizona. He says that little would be the same for him or his seven siblings were it not for the church they attended as children in Texas. Father Aguilar, now 58, grew up in San Antonio in a rented house, the son of a radio repairman and a mother who stayed home to raise their children.

It was the pastor at their Episcopal church who helped his brother to get into college, which led him to a successful career as a health administrator.

“That would not have happened without the guidance of the church,” Aguilar said. The same pastor was responsible for Aguilar himself gaining admission, with tuition paid, to a private Episcopal high school in San Antonio, which led to college, and then seminary.

“If the church was not part of our life 45 years ago, we’d be a very different family,” Aguilar says. “I would be living in San Antonio working at JCPenney.”

Aguilar, who now serves two southern Arizona churches, became a priest to offer a similar kind of support to other low-income kids. So when he looks out at the pews in the low-income communities where he now works, he’s regularly bothered by the absence of young faces.

“Young people in this community just aren’t coming to church,” he says.

A Widening Gap

“There’s been a decline in community participation for poor kids — they’re less exposed to outside mentoring from the community," said Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist who argues in his new book "Our Kids" that inequality is linked to poor kids’ thinning connection with supportive institutions.

Separation from houses of worship is just one of many ways that lower-income children live in a less supported world than wealthier kids. Poor kids are now less likely than wealthy children to be part of sports teams, Putnam says, in part because schools now charge students to join. That means they lose a potential tie to a coach who might guide them to college. And because of changing family structures and the demands of their parents long work days, lower income kids spend less time with family and generally have fewer close social connections.

“These trends add up to greater isolation of poor kids and that makes it harder,” Putnam said. "At the same time rich kids are more exposed.”

In the early part of the last century, Putnam says, lower income families were equally or more likely than wealthy families to be members of religious institutions. By the 1970’s, that had started to change, and children of parents with the lowest education levels were slightly less likely to attend religious services compared to the children of more educated parents.

Now that has more than doubled: teenage children of the least educated adults today spend about a third less time in religious services than the children of parents with college and graduate degrees, according to Putnam’s analysis of several major national public opinion surveys.

The gap in attendance, scholars say, is not about a decline of religious belief. Research has found that belief in God or the power of prayer may actually be lower among people of higher educational status. The disparity emerges in which children actually show up in churches, temples and mosques.

Teenage children of the least educated adults today spend about a third less time in religious services than the children of parents with college and graduate degrees

Social scientists who study religion say that connection to religious community often ebbs and flows over a lifetime. Children will attend services because their parents expect it of them, and then stop attending in their teens and early adult years, only to begin again when they have kids of their own.

But that religious lifecycle may be shifting and this leaves poor kids with less access to the kinds of networks that can lead to jobs, education, or just a broader view of the life paths they might pursue.

“Even in churches where mostly working class people attend, there are certain kinds of resources that congregants can access,” said Omar McRoberts, a University of Chicago sociologist who studies religion. “Sometimes religious leaders have access to opportunities, networks, and information that their own congregants would not otherwise have access to. Sometimes these connections come from other congregants.”

Changing Economy, Changing Churches

When Aguilar was a school kid, it was Father Cliff Waller, the priest at the Sante Fe Episcopal Church on San Antonio's south side, who tapped him and a group of other Latino and black students to attend a local Episcopal school for free. “There’s no way we could have afforded it,” Aguilar said.

It was Father Waller too who helped Aguilar’s brother get into college and a member of the church who bought that brother a bike so he could get to class. That brother is the one who became a health administrator. Aguilar tells similar stories about other siblings.

Image: Fr. Richard Aguilar, pastor of St. John's Epispicol Church in Bisbee, Arizona.
Fr. Richard Aguilar walks along the fence that seperates the U.S. from Mexico, just south of Bisbee, Arizona, Friday, March 13, 2015.Jim Seida / NBC News

“Church was a place where low-income kids made connections, learned about what else might be out there for them,” Aguilar says. “I think it’s the power of prayer, but it’s really the power of community that brings unity, and brings a sharing of concerns.”

But finding time for a service in the current jobs landscape is difficult. “These days, lower income workers work at just above minimum wage, and that’s just not enough. As a result they have to work seven days a week. They don’t have the free time to attend Wednesday night bible study.”

Many researchers who write on class agree. “Losing connections is part of the price of an insecure and unstable workforce,” says Claude Fischer, a UC Berkeley sociologist. “If you’re changing jobs a lot, you have fewer co-workers, no union, you’ve removed a layer of social connection. Church is just another one of these connections.”

Returning the Service

Nora Vinas, 19, met Father Aguilar at a church event in Miami, where Aguilar worked until last year. Vinas came to the U.S. from Colombia with her parents when she was a child and was an undocumented immigrant. She wanted to go to college, but, ineligible for Florida in-state tuition or federal student aid, she saw no route to get there.

“I was undocumented, and people were telling me that there was no way I could go,” said Vinas, whose mother works at a flower shop and father works on the grounds of a country club. “Pretty soon, I didn’t have that much motivation.”

One of a small group of young people who regularly attended church when she was growing up, she talked one day to Father Aguilar. Aguilar made a call to his own alma mater. “I talked to them about financial aid for undocumented students,” he said. “They said they’d provided that before.”

With his support, Vinas applied to college. She was admitted, with financial aid.

“I am in college because of the church. I think community is such a big part of the way I experience being in a church. There’s a community and that provides support for many things,” the psychology major said.

This story is part of a series: "Class In America: Who Do You Think You Are?" Read the series here.