Economists rarely examine such matters as ''churchgoing.'' But Harvard's Richard Freeman, studying the results of a detailed quiz of some 2,358 black young men, found that those going to church regularly were more likely to be on an escape path from ghetto poverty.
''Some did well in high school and went on to college,'' he notes. ''Some obtained work and held down regular well-paying jobs in the mainstream economy. Some escaped the often pathological environment of inner-city slums.''
The survey, conducted in 1979-80, gathered information on ghetto youths' daily allocation of time; on crime, drug-use, and alcohol issues, and on school- and work-experience questions. This information was combined with data from a national survey of young men done between 1979 and 1981.
Mr. Freeman, after looking at the data, suspects that churchgoing actually inspires, to some degree, better behavior in youths - rather than that they are ''good kids'' to start with and thus go to church.
In any case, the survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that church-going ghetto youths were engaged in less illegal activity, drugs, and alcohol. Contrariwise, they usually spent more time in school and got higher grades, were more likely to have jobs and stay in their jobs longer, and went to college in proportionately higher numbers. These factors, Mr. Freeman notes, would ultimately mean better, higher-paying jobs for these churchgoers - although no immediate impact on employment or earnings was found.
Further, the study found, churchgoing youths spend more time productively in such activities as working, searching for work, traveling to work, going to school, training, housework, and reading - and less time in such nonproductive activities as ''hanging out,'' playing games, watching TV or movies, going to parties, listening to music, serving time in jail, being unemployed, or getting high on drugs.
Youths with parents on welfare on average did more poorly in almost all these respects - going to school, wasting time, and so forth. But it made no difference in wage rates for those working. Youths in public housing also did less well in school attendance and in the work area. Being a gang member, as might be expected, boosted deviant behavior.
Another mostly helpful factor for the ghetto youths was to have a higher proportion of adults (fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, and so forth) in their families working. Those working provided labor-market contacts for the youths. But it also meant the adults have less time for supervision of the youth, permitting ''increased socially deviant activity,'' such as drinking alcohol.
Contrary to the perception of many, youths from female-headed homes (with no fathers living at home) did almost as well as those with adult males in the household. But if the adult male in the house was not employed, this had a negative effect in some areas on the youths.
Looking at how the 16- to 24-year-old youths spend each month, the study found that on average about one-third was spent working, one-third in school or training, and one-third in other activities, such as looking for work.