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The New Politics of Character

Youth Opportunity (YO!) Academy studens (L-R) Samira Gardner, Ray Allan, Rashia Gerald and Khaalid Brooks sit in front of a wall at the Westside Youth Opportunity Center in Baltimore, March 9, 2011. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Liberals – whether of the American or European variety – should care about character, because it is a vital contributor to greater equality of opportunity. In the debates about social mobility, most of the attention from those on the political left goes to ‘hard’ factors such as money, housing, health care and school quality. Understandably enough, given the large and critical gaps in these areas. But the so-called ‘soft skills’ that make up character are hugely important too. If we want to boost social mobility, we need not only more “hard” opportunities, but more people able to seize them.

The Bipartisan Politics of Character

In our Character and Opportunity Project, we are examining the aspects of character that matter most for social mobility, and considering which policies, if any, might be brought to bear on the gaps in character formation. But all this is for nothing without political support – from both sides of the aisle. In a new essay for National Affairs, I argue for a “bipartisan policy push to help cultivate character in the name of opportunity”. For such a coalition to form, liberals need to get past their squeamishness about character issues, and conservatives need to get past their resistance to using public policy to address skills gaps.

In the essay, I make a strong claim for the importance of developing attributes such as drive (the ability to stick with a task) and prudence (the ability to visualize and deliberately plan and work for the future):

“The development of character is perhaps the central task of any civilized society and every individual within it. Its absence is felt in many areas of long-standing concern to policymakers…This is perhaps most true of the current debates about inequality and social mobility. Gaps in character development closely correlate to gaps in income, family functioning, education, and employment. The character gap fuels the opportunity gap, and vice-versa.”

Poverty Undermines Character Development, Too

This last point is vital. It is certainly true that individuals who fail to develop important character strengths will struggle to be upwardly mobile. But it is also true that both poverty and a lack of opportunity undermine the processes of character formation. Poverty directly and indirectly impacts the development of character strengths. And an absence of real opportunity acts as a strong disincentive to develop mobility-enhancing strengths. Why defer gratification if the deferred gratification seems so unlikely? (If you haven’t seen it, check out the re-worked version of the famed ‘marshmallow test’.)

It is no good ignoring the role of character strengths in the fight for greater upward mobility: Equally, it is no good ignoring the role of the lack of upward mobility and entrenched poverty in the drive to cultivate character.

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