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


Increasing media attention has highlighted both the promise and the risk of religions role in promoting health and well-being, fostering morality and values, and influencing the lives of the poor. A recent cover story in TIME magazine, for example, looked at Faith and Healing; and books and articles expressing diverse viewpoints on the effects of religiosity appear monthlyranging from journalistic accounts of the global spread of modern American religion that can bring together isolated people and communities and contribute to positive outcomes (Micklethwait & Wooldridge, 2009), to medical research on the role of religiousness in patients end-of-life treatment decisions published in top-tier academic journals (Phelps et al., 2009).

Not only are faith and religion the focus of a flurry of recent media and academic research, these topics are routinely discussed in policy circles. Interdisciplinary research and policy conferences have been convened recently to share collective knowledge about the potential for religiosity to influence positive health outcomes and the effectiveness of faith-based social services. The sheer volume of publications, public forums, and dissemination outlets is increasingly diverse, prestigious, and, taken together, difficult to ignore. Clearly, religiosity and spirituality, and their connections to improving lives, are of interest
to the American public as well as policymakers.

While the consideration of religiosity and spirituality in solving social problems may be
intuitively appealing, the charge of the newly reconstituted White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships reinforces a focus on better understanding how religion can affect outcomes, based on the available research. Part of the White House Offices charge is

  • ... to promote the better use of program evaluation and research, in order to ensure that organizations deliver services as specified in grant agreements, contracts, memoranda of understanding, and other arrangements, and
  • Through rigorous evaluation, and by offering technical assistance, the Federal Government must ensure that organizations receiving Federal funds achieve measurable results in furtherance of valid public purposes." (White House, 2009).

If religiosity has the potential to increase positive outcomes, whether directly or indirectly, its effects can be encouraged through government partnerships that address a variety of outcomes for low-income and underserved populations (Dionne & Rogers, 2008; Fagan, 2006). If greater religiosity or spirituality helps build coping strategies that buffer negative experiences or if they are associated with better outcomes, it is possible that programs that consider or address religiosity or spirituality could be more effective than those that do not (Monsma & Soper, 2006). Understanding the differences that exist in religiosity between socioeconomic groups will enhance the ability of policymakers and practitioners to design and deliver programs that best serve the needs of low-income groups.

This report highlights several reviews of empirical research studies that document the association religiosity has with positive behaviors, such as better mental health (Koenig, 2008), less crime (Baier & Wright, 2001) lower rates of substance use (Chitwood, Weiss, & Leukefeld , 2008), and healthy family relationships (Mahoney, Paragament, Tarakeshwar, & Swank, 2001). While the overall body of research that demonstrates a positive association between religion and positive behavior is promising, the empirical literature is still in its early stages of development. New research studies using methodologically rigorous designs can pave the way for developing more evidence-based programs and practices that could help improve outcomes among economically vulnerable families.

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