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

07/10/2009

Several scholars note the lack of a national census of religious participation that includes indicators of economic, health, and family well-being (Fagan, 2006). Although there are several nationally representative data sets that include extensive measures of family income and health outcomes (e.g., National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Health and Retirement Study, National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health), few include detailed measures of religiosity beyond affiliation and church attendance. Secondary data analysis of these existing data sets to establish baseline religiosity effects on health across income groups is an important first step in this research area.

There are several new studies currently under way that will begin to address knowledge gaps, although it is unclear to what extent they will focus on low-income populations. The John Templeton Foundation recently funded seven new studies that will begin to address several limitations of this literature. These studies focus on delineating the pathways of effects between religion and mental and physical health outcomes for a diverse set of racial and ethnic groups. One study described in Section 6 (Substance Use) focuses on the low-income population. Some of the study populations may contain sufficient sample sizes to examine whether religiosity is associated with differential health effects depending on income levels. For example, one grantee will add a new group of respondents of Mexican origin to an existing longitudinal survey (Religion, Aging and Health Survey) that consists of 1,500 white and African American U.S. elderly individuals. This new data set will be an important source for studies of the effects of religiosity on health by income group in a nationally representative and racially and ethnically diverse sample of elderly Americans.

Lastly, there are several evaluations of church-based health promotion programs under way across the country. Many of these programs target underserved populations that are likely to live in low-income communities. In addition to examining the effectiveness of the educational programs, researchers should examine the extent to which individual religiosity, participation in religious institutions, and community religiosity influence program effects positively or negatively, and the extent to which the effects differ by the economic resources of program participants. Disentangling individual religiosity effects from the educational program effects can help improve the tailoring of health-related messages as well as the target groups served.

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