Role of Religiosity in the Lives of the Low-Income Population: A Comprehensive Review of the Evidence. Findings Specific to the Low-Income Population

07/10/2009

1. Does religious denomination influence marriage and relationship outcomes?

Similar to the research that draws on national and community samples, individual religious denomination and homogeneity of a couples religious denominations do not appear to be a significant determinant of marriage outcomes for low-income couples. In contrast, the relationship between frequency of church attendance and marriage outcomes appears to be positive.

  • Religious denomination and homogeneity of a couples denomination do not appear to be significant determinants of marriage outcomes for low-income couples. In contrast, the relationship between frequency of church attendance and marriage outcomes appears to be positive.

The findings from five longitudinal studies that examine the effects of religious denomination on various marriage and relationship outcomes are summarized in Table 2-1. In general, individual religious denomination does not have a significant effect on union formation or dissolution across the different groups. Similarly, having any religious affiliation compared with no affiliation shows minimal effect for unmarried parents and married couples. A notable exception is that wives in interfaith marriages rate their marital quality significantly lower than wives who share the religious affiliation of their husbands.

2. Do higher frequency of church attendance and other measures of religiosity influence marriage and relationship outcomes?

In order to establish the presence or absence of a direct effect of frequency of church attendance on marriage outcomes, we first examined studies that considered the effects of church attendance, controlling for other marriage-related covariates. In the next section we present the results of studies that consider whether there are direct and indirect pathways of religiosity effectsthat is, did church attendance directly affect marriage outcomes as well as operate through other mechanisms such as social networks?

Table 2-1.
Relationship between Religious Denomination and Marriage-Related Outcomes in the Low-Income Population
Marriage and Relationship Outcomes Effect of Religious Denomination
Cohabitating womens marriage
(Lichter et al., 2006; NLSY,1 n = 1,342)
No effect of Catholic or other denominations for poor and nonpoor women. Exception is that for nonpoor women, no religion increases the likelihood of marriage, compared with Protestant.
Unmarried parents union formation
(Wilcox & Wolfinger, 2007; FFCW,2 n = 3,069 and Caputo, 2007, FFCW, n = 600)
No effect
Cohabitating womens union dissolution
(Lichter et al., 2006; NLSY, n = 1,342)
No effect
Single mothers attitudes toward childbirth and marriage
(Cherlin et al., 2008; WCF,3 n = 1,722 )
No effect
Unmarried parents global relationship quality
(Wilcox & Wolfinger, 2007; FFCW, n = 2,034)
No effect of couples religious homogamy in denomination categories. Exception is that women of any denomination besides Protestant have higher marital quality than women with no religion. No effects for men.
Married coupleshusbands ratings of marital quality
(Lichter & Carmalt, 2009; MARS,4 n = 433)
No effect of denomination categories. Husbands with any affiliation rate two out of seven measures of quality higher than those with none. No effect of interfaith marriage on seven outcomes.
Married coupleswives ratings of marital quality
(Lichter & Carmalt, 2009)
No effect of denomination categories. Wives with any affiliation rate two out of seven measures of marital quality higher than wives with none. Wives in interfaith marriages report lower levels of marital quality on five out of seven measures.
Married coupleswithin-couple ratings
(Lichter & Carmalt, 2009)
No effect of denomination categories or affiliation.
  1. NLSY = National Longitudinal Survey of Youth
  2. FFCW = Fragile Families and Child Well-Being
  3. WCF = Welfare, Children, and Families
  4. MARS = Marital and Relationship Survey

Five longitudinal studies that measure the direct effect of frequent religious attendance (without controlling for potential mediating variables) are highlighted in Table 2-2. All of these studies indicate that there are either positive or null effects of frequent church attendance on marriage and relationship outcomes for low-income parents. No studies point to negative effects.

Table 2-2.
Studies of the Direct Effect of Frequent Church Attendance and Marriage-Related Outcomes in the Low-Income Population
Marriage and Relationship Outcomes Effect of Frequent Church Attendance
Unmarried couples union formation
(Carlson et al., 2004; FFCW,1 n = 3,285)
Reduces the probability of cohabitation for fathers and increases the probability of marriage for mothers.
Unmarried couples union formation
(Caputo, 2007; FFCW, n = 600)
Reduces the probability of cohabitation for fathers. No effect for first-time mothers.
Marital dissolution
(Waller & Peters, 2008; FFCW, n = 4,182)
Significant negative effect for mothers; fathers not measured.
Unmarried and married couplesmultipartner fertility
(Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006; FFCW, n = 4,300)
Significant negative effect for mothers; no effect for fathers.
Marital quality
(Lichter & Carmalt, 2009; MARS,2 n = 433)
Wives who rate their church attendance as frequent and who have a shared denomination with their husbands rate two out of seven measures of marital quality higher than those who do not go to church regularly and have shared denominations with their husbands. No significant effect for husbands. Within couples, frequent attendance increased for two out of seven measures of marital quality (commitment and satisfaction).
  1. FFCW = Fragile Families and Child Well-Being
  2. MARS = Marital and Relationship Survey

Given the small number of studies and the different populations of couples (unmarried, married, combined) included in studies, it is difficult to make generalizations about how the overall effect of frequent church attendance on marital and relationship outcomes varies by gender. This initial variation in results for men and women calls for further study of the gender differences in the effects of church attendance on marriage and relationship measures.
One study points to the importance of including measures of couples ratings of their joint religiosity and spirituality in terms of their activities together (including attending services, praying together and talking about spiritual issues, celebrating religious holidays, sharing religious social activities) and religious beliefs (e.g., God is a part of our relationship, our relationship is a holy bond, relationship is an expression of spirituality). Lichter & Carmalt (2009) find that greater participation of each spouse in religious activities together and shared religious beliefs about their relationships were significantly positively associated with all seven of the indicators of marital quality (e.g., commitment to each other as a couple and to children, communication, satisfaction, intimacy, and positive conflict resolution).

4. What are the potential mediating pathways of the effects between church attendance and marriage outcomes?

Table 2-3.
Effect of Frequent Church Attendance and Marriage-Related Outcomes in the Low-Income Population,
Controlling for Potential Mediating Variables
Marriage and Relationship Outcomes Effect of Frequent Church Attendance
Unmarried couples get married
(Wilcox & Wolfinger, 2007; FFCW,1 n = 3,069)
Positive significant effect for mothers that attenuates but remains significant after controlling for fathers religiosity and relationship behaviors. Positive significant effect for fathers that attenuates but remains significant after controlling for relationship behaviors.
Unmarried couples have pro-marriage attitudes
(Shafer, 2006; FFCW, n = 5,945)
Positive significant effect for mothers attitudes (5 out of 5 measures) and fathers (3 out of 5 attitudes). The significant positive effect for mothers is attenuated when relationship quality and partner variables are controlled, but remains significant. This is not tested for fathers.
Unmarried and married couples report high union satisfaction
(Wilcox & Wolfinger, 2008; FFCW, n = 2,034)
Positive significant effect for fathers high attendance that attenuates but remains significant after mediators. A significant effect for both partners attending frequently becomes nonsignificant after adding in mediators.
Mother married at the time of birth
(Fragile Families Research Brief, 2004; FFCW, n = 4,840)
Positive significant effect for mothers is attenuated by marriage norms but remains significant. This is not tested for fathers.
Couples report high marital quality
(Lichter & Carmalt, 2009; MARS,2 n = 433)
Positive significant effect of joint participation in religious activities is attenuated by joint participation in secular activities, but remains significant.
  1. FFCW = Fragile Families and Child Well-Being
  2. MARS = Marital and Relationship Survey

Four of the five studies draw on the Fragile Families survey to examine whether the direct effects of frequent church attendance diminish after controlling for potential mediators. All four studies show that the direct effect of church attendance is reduced with the addition of the mediating variables; however, in all but one study, the effects remained statistically significant. This suggests that there are likely to be both direct and indirect effects of religiosity on marriage indicators. An example of one potential pathway is Wilcox and Wolfingers (2008) findings that joint religious attendance by mothers and fathers has a positive effect on marital quality that could potentially operate only indirectly through constructive behaviors such as partner supportiveness and lack of conflict over sexual fidelity. Interestingly, this study shows that in couples in which men but not women attend church frequently, religious participation is associated with higher ratings of union satisfaction.

One study, which includes measures of the religious and secular activities in which spouses participate together, finds that both types of activities are important for relationship quality. Lichter and Carmalt (2009) note that their findings demonstrate that the couple that prays together stays together and that the couple that plays together stays together (p. 184).

4. Are there differences in the effect of religion and religiosity by race and the level of material hardship?

There is little initial evidence of subgroup differences in the effect of religion and religiosity. In terms of marital quality, Lichter and Carmalt (2009) do not find that religiosity affected martial quality differently depending on the level of material hardship. Wilcox and Wolfinger (2007) do not detect any race differences in the effects of frequent church attendance on the probability of forming a marriage.

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