Religious conversion as an anti-poverty strategy

Adam writes to me:

Hypothetical for you: would a massive conversion of low-income people to Mormonism reduce poverty? Utah looks to have some good demographics, which must be somewhat due to to the fact that 60% belong to the LDS church:

They have the lowest child poverty rate in the country, the highest birth rate but the lowest out-of-wedlock birthrate.

Is Mormon conversion a viable development policy?

A viable *policy*, no, but a viable solution *yes*.  Many of the costs of poverty are sociological rather than narrowly economic per se.  In other words, many of the poor do not have what could be called Mormon lifestyles.  This point holds all the more strongly in Latin America, where alcoholism is arguably a larger economic problem than in the United States.  It is not uncommon for a rural village to have a male alcoholism rate of up to fifty percent.

A political conservative is more likely to make this point than to simply focus on the lack of money earned by the poor.  A political liberal is more likely to assume that the rate of strict religiosity can rise only so high, and take that as a background constraint.  Furthermore, under the exogenous thought experiment of many more poor people converting to Mormonism, positive selection bias diminishes and perhaps the religion as a whole becomes less strict.

The truth of the Mormonism insight doesn’t necessarily have strong implications for cash-based social aid policies in the meantime.  Mormonism, as a variable, is difficult for political agents to manipulate, although they (possibly) can squash it.  Raising this point, however, makes the poor look less like victims and more like a group partially complicit in their own fate.  That framing does have “marketing” implications for the politics of how many resources the poor will receive.  For this reason, liberals sometimes underrate the conservative point, because they do not like its political implications, and this leads liberals to misunderstand poverty.  The conservatives end up misunderstanding poverty policy.  Almost everyone ends up a little screwy and off-base on this issue, victims of the fallacy of mood affiliation.

Here is an article about the poorest community in the United States, in terms of measured income, it is mostly Hasidic Jews (1/20).  It doesn’t have most of the problems which we usually associate with poor communities.


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