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

The first set of studies examines the relationship between religiosity and various youth outcomes. Researchers primarily assess direct religiosity effects without exploring potential mediators between religiosity and outcomes. The first study explores value orientations and the second set explores a range of behavioral and developmental outcomes.

  • 1. Does religiosity differentially influence value formation among low-income (compared with higher-income) youths?

Beutel and Marini (1995) explore how religiosity, gender, and social support are associated with youth value orientations, which are measured by compassion (concern for well-being of others), materialism (emphasis on material benefit and competition), and meaning (philosophical concern with finding purpose and meaning in life). Greater religiosity, measured by a two-item index (attendance and importance of religion), is associated with greater compassion, less materialism, and greater concern with finding meaning. Social support is also positively associated with compassion, but it is not formally tested as a mediator between religiosity and compassion.

  • 2. What is the relationship between religiosity and a range of youth behavioral and developmental outcomes among low-income youths?

A second set of studies, summarized in Table 4-3, examines the association between religiosity and various youth behavioral and developmental outcomes. In these studies, the dependent or outcome variable is the behavioral or developmental outcome of interest and the key explanatory variables include a measure of religiosity. In some studies, religiosity is the sole key explanatory variable (in addition to relevant controls). In others, religiosity is tested as one item in a broader set of factors that can be correlated with religiosity (e.g., social support and participation in secular activities). The outcomes explored in these studies can be divided into three main categories: (1) developmental/psychological, (2) academic/school-related, and (3) risk behaviors/deviance.

Table 4-3.
Summary of Findings: Religiosity and Behavioral Outcomes
(Main Effects)
Sample/
Data Source
Other Explanatory Factors Outcome Variable(s) Measure(s) of Religiosity

Effect

Psychological/Development Outcomes
Graham-Bermann et al., 2006 N = 218
Convenience/
Geographic
Exposure to intimate partner violence, mother social support (including religiosity) Posttraumatic stress disorder Unspecified religious measures embedded in social support index

+f

Bolland et al., 2005 N = 5,895
Convenience/ Geographic
Risk & protective factors1 Hopelessness Importance/salience

+

Pedersen et al., 2005 N = 560
Convenience/ Geographic
  Depression

Self-esteem

Religious Contextual Profile2: participation in religious activities, centrality of religious beliefs, belief in God

Mixed

Mixed

Vaughn & Roesch, 2003 N = 182
Convenience/ Geographic
  Psychological health (stress-related growth, depression)

Physical health

Index: four religious coping strategies

+3

+3

Ball et al., 2003 N = 492
Convenience/ Geographic
  Sexual behavior

Self-esteem

General psychological functioning

Index: organized religion and subjective religiosity

Attendance

Family's religiosity

Index: organized religion and subjective religiosity

Attendance

Family's religiosity

Index: organized religion and subjective religiosity

Attendance

Family's religiosity

Null

+

Null

-

Mixed

+

Null

+

Null

Academic Outcomes
Hodge, 2007 N = 84 Convenience/ Geographic   Academic test scores Participation in religious activities (spiritual instruction)

Null

Pedersen & Seidman, 2005 N = 560
Convenience/ Geographic
  Academic achievement

Self-esteem

Antisocial behavior

Participation in religious youth group

+

+

Null

Gardner, 2004 N = 12,144
National Educational Longitudinal Survey
Participation in secular activities On-time graduation

Educational attainment

Index: participation in organized religious activities, importance of religious participation to friends, self-reported religiousness

+

+

Regnerus & Elder, 2003 N = 9,667
National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health
Risk & protective factors1 Academic "on-track" performance Attendance

Importance/salience

Attended Catholic school

+

Null

Null

Problem/Risk Behavior Outcomes
Lillard & Price, 2007 N>70,000
National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), and Monitoring the Future (MTF)
  Commit property or violent crime

Behavior problems

Reading scores

Substance use

Risky behaviors

Hurt others

Attendance

+

+

Null

+

+

Null

NOTE: For studies that examined multiple outcomes, effects are reported by outcome. For studies that examined multiple outcomes and multiple measures of religiosity, effects are reported by outcome and by religiosity measure.
  1. In Bolland et al. (2005), risk factors include disruptive events (e.g., Pan factors include child-specific and home-life characteristics. Risk factors include things like absence of biological parent and child learning disability, while protective factors include things like family socioeconomic status and child self-image.
  2. Findings for psychological health only significant for Mexican Americans and Asian Americans (not for African Americans). Findings for physical health only for Mexican Americans.
  3. Adolescents were assessed on several dimensions of self-reported engagement with six social contexts  peer, academic, athletic, employment, religious and cultural contexts. Youth meeting the Religious Contextual Profile showed commitment to the religious context.
  • In general, the studies that measure religiosity with church attendance and/or participation in organized religious activities, and include only religiosity as the key explanatory factor, find positive associations between religiosity and outcomes in all three categories, developmental/psychological, academic/school-related, and risk behaviors/deviance.

In general, the studies that measure religiosity with church attendance and/or participation in organized religious activities, and include only religiosity as the key explanatory factor, find positive associations between religiosity and outcomes in all three categories, developmental/psychological, academic/school-related, and risk behaviors/deviance (see Ball, Armistead, & Austin, 2003; Lillard & Price, 2007; Pedersen & Seidman, 2005). However, the findings become more complicated when studies (1) use alternate measures of religiosityincluding importance of religion and other measures of subjective religiosity, (2) simultaneously examine additional key explanatory factors that are likely to be correlated with religiosity, (3) examine multiple measures of religiosity and multiple key explanatory factors, or (4) explore gender differences.

For example, the findings for subjective religiosity are not as straightforward as the findings for church attendance. Among low-income, urban African American females, Ball et al. (2003) find positive associations between church attendance and three outcomes: sexual behavior, self-esteem, and general psychological functioning.[4] However, subjective religiosity (e.g., importance of religion) and family religiosity have no association with sexual behavior or psychological functioning and mixed associations with self-esteem.

Findings for studies that include multiple measures of religiosity and other key explanatory variablesspecifically youths participation in or engagement with secular activities and risk or protective factorsalso vary depending on the outcome of interest, the specific measure of religiosity used and the explanatory variables included.

Two studies that examine psychological outcomes (Bolland, Lian, & Formichella, 2005; Vaughn & Roesch, 2003) find positive associations between religiosity and stress-related growth,[5] depression, and hopelessness. Both studies use subjective measures of religiosity and include relevant risk and protective factors as other key independent variables. However, when Regnerus and Elder (2003) examine the relationship between subjective religiosity and academic outcomes, while also including relevant risk and protective factors, they find no significant association. These findings raise the possibility that the influence of subjective religiosity is outcome-specific for low-income youths.

Pedersen et al. (2005) and Gardner (2004) both find that inclusion of youths level of participation in secular activities affects the interpretation of religious effects. Notably, Pedersen et al. (2005) perform an empirical analysis that assigns youth into a contextual profile based on their engagement with different types of activities. The contextual profiles allow for youths to identify with multiple domains. Youths in the Strong Religious Connection domains have more positive psychological outcomes (self-esteem and depression) than those who are Unengaged but do not do as well as: (1) youths who associate with other secular domains and (2) youths who associate with multiple domains. Gardner finds that, while religious participation is positively associated with academic outcomes (particularly for low-income youths), the associations between secular involvement and academic outcomes are substantially larger than those between religious involvement and outcomes. These findings suggest that inclusion of measures of secular involvement can affect interpretations of religiosity effects by capturing the simultaneous influences of the multiple domains that youths inhabit.  Religiosity models that include secular involvement are therefore likely to  prevent overestimates of religiosity effects.

Other nuances to certain findings also highlight gaps in current knowledge about religiosity and youth outcomes. For example, Vaughn and Roeschs (2003) findings apply for Mexican Americans and Asians but not for African Americans, highlighting the need for further examining of racial groups within the low-income population. In addition, while Ball et al. (2003) find that church attendance is positively associated with self-esteem, the highest levels of self-esteem are found among youth who attend church a few times a month. Those who said they attend never or almost every day had the lowest levels of self-esteem. This raises the possibility that the nature of these relationships may not be entirely linear and that religious involvement is most beneficial to youths when incorporated into a broader mix of engagements, activities, and values. However, further analysis about the youths residing in the tails of the religiosity distribution is warranted.

  • 3. Is religiosity a protective factor that moderates the potential negative relationship between high levels of risk exposure and adverse outcomes among low-income youths?

A third set of studies, summarized in Table 4-4, assesses whether religiosity serves as a protective factor by diminishing the potential negative relationship between high levels of risks or stressors and adverse outcomes. In these studies, the dependent or outcome variable is the behavioral or developmental outcome of interest, the key explanatory variables are individual risk factors (or set of factors) that predict adverse outcomes, and religiosity is included as a moderating factor. Outcomes explored in these studies include: (1) developmental/psychological, (2) academic/educational/school-related, (3) risk behaviors/deviance, and (4) economic/financial, including income or receipt of public assistance as an adult.

Five of the six studies in this third set find that religiosity is a significant moderating factor between risk factors or negative life eventsincluding childhood disadvantage and exposure to high levels of stress, intimate partner violence, community violence, or child maltreatmentand outcomes in each of the four categories described above (see Table 4-4 for more detail). Four of the six studies use multi-item religiosity measures, which combined church attendance and subjective religiosity items. Two studies use only family-level religiosity measures, including parental religious church attendance (Dehejia et al., 2007) and family moral-religious emphasis (Overstreet & Braun, 1999). At least two of the studies develop their measures of religiosity to have increased relevance for low-income, urban, minority youth (described in previous section on Religiosity Measurement).

Notably, four of the six studies only find effects for females. Also no studies, for males or females, find religiosity effects for externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression), which are a more common response to maltreatment among males. The moderating effects of religion between stress and depression, found by Carleton, Esparz, Thaxter, and Grant (2008), only held for youths experiencing moderate to low levels of stress, not those experiencing the highest stress levels. These findings raise the possibility that religiosity moderates the link between exposure to stressors and outcomes differentially for males and females and that its protective power could be more limited for the most highly stressed and/or maltreated youths.

The Overstreet and Braun (1999) findings also warrant further discussion. They find that children who perceived very high achievement expectations and a very strong moral-religious emphasis were most at risk for poor academic functioning as exposure to community violence increased. This study identifies another relevant set of questions about how the entire set of family social and religious values interact to influence youth outcomes.

  • 4. When religiosity exerts statistically significant moderating associations between adverse life events/stressors and outcomes, what aspects of religiosity drive these associations?

Because of the paucity of studies that address this question for the low-income (and general) population, the literature only rarely mentions the specific mechanisms through which religiosity functions to influence youth outcomes. Only one study of the moderating effects of religiosity between harmful life events/stressors and outcomes provides relevant evidence on this topic.

Table 4-4.
Summary of Findings: Religiosity and Behavioral Outcomes (Moderating Effects)
  Sample/Data Source Risk Factor Moderating Protective Factors Outcome Variable(s) Measure(s) of Religiosity Effect
Psychological/Development Outcomes
Carleton et al., 2008 N = 2,100 Convenience/ Geographic Stress Religiosity, nonreligious social support Depression Religious coping resources +f1
Grant et al., 2000 N = 224
Convenience/ Geographic
Stress Religiosity, coping strategies, family relationships Internalizing behaviors

Externalizing behaviors

Socioculturally relevant religiosity measures (developed for study) +f

Null

Jones, 2007 N = 71
Convenience/ Geographic
Exposure to Community Violence Religiosity, nonreligious social support Posttraumatic stress disorder Socioculturally relevant religiosity measures (developed for study) +
Kim, 2008 N~400
Convenience/ Geographic
Child maltreatment Religiosity Internalizing behaviors Index: attendance, importance/
salience, ritualistic-prayer
+f
Other Outcomes          
Dehejia et al., 2007 N~1952
NSFH2
14 child disadvantage measures Religiosity, parent participation in social organizations 12 life outcome measures (e.g., educational attainment, income as adult, receipt of public assistance, risky behavior, psychological well-being) Parent religious attendance +
Overstreet & Braun, 1999 N~45 Exposure to community violence Family moral-religious emphasis (exposure x family moral-religious emphasis) & family achievement orientation (exposure x family achievement orientation) Academic functioning Family moral-religious emphasis -
  1. f = effect significant for females only.
  2. NSFH = National Survey of Families and Households

Carleton et al. (2008) perform supplemental analyses to assess whether religious coping resources continue to serve as moderators of the stress-depression link once the effects of other social support coping strategies are removed from the equation. To do this, they controlled statistically[6] for the effects of social support on religious coping strategies and then re-ran the moderator analysis (in which religiosity was included as a moderator of the stress-depression link). Examining religious coping strategies, net of their social support dimensions, Carleton et al. (2008) find that religiosity no longer has a moderating effect on the relationship between stress and depression.

While the evidence presented here is preliminary and from only one study, it supports the notion that the social support aspects of religiosity may be an important pathway through which religiosity influences youth outcomes.

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