"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.
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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."