Role of Religiosity in the Lives of the Low-Income Population: A Comprehensive Review of the Evidence. Existing Research Points to Differences in Religious Involvement  by Income


While religion plays a significant role in the lives of Americansover 90% believe in God, over 50% attend church once or twice a month, 75% pray at least once weekly, and 62% reject the idea that religion causes more problems than it solves (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2008)there are considerable differences in the religious affiliations, activities, and beliefs of lower-income Americans compared with higher-income Americans, including the following:

  • Religious affiliation is stratified by socioeconomic status (SES, which includes education, income, and occupation).  Lower-income groups are affiliated with more theologically conservative institutions of worship, whereas higher-income groups are affiliated with more liberal institutions (Smith & Faris, 2005). These patterns have remained stable over time.
  • Lower-income adults, as well as youths, have higher levels of religious beliefs and adherence to doctrine but lower participation in organizational religiosity (McCloud, 2007; Schwadel, 2008; Sullivan, 2006.) Lower SES is associated with more personal devotionalism, higher rates of adherence to doctrinal beliefs, and more religious experiences (Nelson, 2009). Lower-income teenagers are generally less likely to participate in organized religious activities, but they are more likely to engage in conventional religious practices, such as prayer and reading scriptures.
  • Higher-income is associated with greater church attendance, higher levels of religious knowledge, and more participation in religious leadership positions among adults (Nelson, 2009).
  • Several studies suggest that the lower-income individuals hold stronger religious beliefs than their higher-income counterparts; however, there is variation in these findings. Some studies do not show significant differences in the nature of religious beliefs or participation by income, suggesting that the differences in the findings could be caused by the lack of consistent measurement of income groups as well as of religiosity (Cnaan, Gelles, & Sinha, 2003).

While these questions cannot be answered directly in this literature review, it is important to consider how these differences in beliefs and participation could affect outcomes in the low-income population when assessing this literature. For example, do stronger religious beliefs among the low-income population translate into better or worse outcomes? Does affiliation with a more theologically conservative religion increase the probability of positive behavioral outcomes or does it foster rebellion among low-income youths? Do these effects differ depending on different demographic characteristics or levels of economic and social resources?

Although there is evidence of the potential for religiosity and spirituality to affect positive behaviors, there are also findings about more complex associations across family outcomes (Lippman, Michelsen, & Roehlekepartain, 2005). These findings suggest meaningful variation in the role that religion can play in different populations. For example, lower-income Americans have high levels of religious and spiritual beliefs that, in some cases, are greater than those of higher-income Americans (Ludwig & Mayer, 2006). Because poverty is correlated with several negative behavioral outcomes, and because the low-income population has high levels of religious beliefs, it has been suggested that religiosity and spirituality could help to buffer the negative consequences of living in poverty and provide a pathway out of the multi-problem patterns that can accompany limited resources (Dehija, Deleire, Luttmer, & Mitchell, 2007; Fagan, 2006).

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