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


Two studies discussed in this review provide promising models for future quantitative research. In a 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper, Dehejia et al. used longitudinal NSFH data to analyze 14 measures of childhood disadvantage, ranging from familial indicators such as family income, poverty, and parental education; to child-specific characteristics; and 12 outcome measures ranging from child educational attainment and psychological well-being to adult outcomes such as income and receipt of public assistance. They systematically tested each disadvantage-outcome dyad, including measures of participation in religious organizations and participation in social organizations, as two potential moderators. While the study is limited because it does not examine specific dimensions of the moderating effects of religiosity and engagement with social organizations (they find few effects for social organizations), the authors provide a sound research model that eliminates reverse causality issues by using longitudinal data and that systematically examines the moderating effects of religiosity for specific disadvantage-outcome dyads. Future research could replicate this model, including not only participation in religious activities, but all other available NSFH religiosity measures and measures of potential mediating factors in the relationship between religiosity and youth outcomes.

The 2007 study by Lillard and Price provides a fairly comprehensive overview of the various methodologies that can be used to tackle the selection challenges of determining the relationship of religiosity with various youth outcomes. In their study of church attendance and various youth outcomes, Lillard and Price test and compare the same set of outcome and explanatory variables with five different quantitative approaches, including multivariate regression analysis, matching estimators/propensity score matching, fixed effects (individual and family), and instrumental variable techniques. They compile and examine measures from three national youth data sets (National Longitudinal Study of Youth, Panel Study of Income Dynamics and Monitoring the Future) and then compare and contrast results using the various approaches. While acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the various approaches and the limitation of using only one religiosity measure, Lillard and Price provide a model for the field that can be helpful as the quantitative research seeks to move from the correlational to the causal phase.

Also, the recently initiated National Study of Youth and Religion holds promise as a key data source for future quantitative and qualitative research. This data set simultaneously provides longitudinal data, multiple measures of religiosity, and income and demographic data. In addition to the potential for performing additional quantitative work on the existing data set for low-income survey respondents, there is also the potential to add survey items related to mediating factors that are not currently included in the survey.

Some examples of current studies and centers that have the potential for producing findings specific to low-income youths include current research funded by the Search Institute Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence; the Youth and Religion Project, focusing on the Chicago metropolitan area; and current research by Professor Guerda Nicolas at the University of Miami, focusing on immigrant children and adolescents. Also, the Spirituality and Human Development Program at Tufts Universitys Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development is performing a mixed-methods study on youths and religiosity/spirituality. This study involves researchers from a wide range of disciplines and employs techniques rarely (if ever) used in the past to study religiosity in youth. For example, through a partnership with Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital researchers are performing a brain imaging study that investigates relationships between emotional regulation in the brain and indicators of spiritual practices and positive youth development. While this study is not currently specific to low-income youth, modifications to their data collection to include either income data from a parent or guardian or other relevant economic indicator information would increase the relevance of this study.

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