The Economy and Religiosity

Tue, 2011-12-06 12:38

By Hadi Khan, Associate Consultant & MPA'12

A lot has been said on this topic and the debate is still alive: Do religious practices tend to increase during times of economic hardship? Or is there no effect at all?

A survey study by Gallup offered a clear statistical answer – there is no significant change in church/synagogue/mosque attendance during or after the recent economic recession. This was supported by plotting attendance rates at religious institutions over the years which shows barely any fluctuation (view here). But it is always useful to look a bit deeper.

Economist Daniel Hungerman at the University of Notre Dame contests that the relationship of GDP to church attendance is unmistakably inverse. But why so? Does a poor economy make people pray more for getting a job?

Interestingly, economists and researchers have been able to distinguish a few seemingly related variables in order to answer these questions with greater understanding and clarity. Firstly, religiosity, rather than being a single variable, can have many dimensions. Two of these are of particular interest: an individual’s communal identity, and the other being his/her private religious identity (beliefs, individual practices, etc.).  For economic hardships we can consider how the economy of the country (or other geographic region) is doing, or we can assess the socioeconomic status of the individual or family (employment status, education, income, home-value, etc.).

With these in mind it is likely that an individual’s attendance rate will not change with higher income (if that were true only the poor will fill the churches, however, it is seen rates increase with education which is an indicator of income). This supports the Gallup polls. At the same time Hungerman’s data gives an aggregate picture. This increase in communal activities can be explained by increase in insecurity about the future during a recession, and more willingness to stay connected with the community to learn about the happenings in other people’s lives.  Praying for a job might only be a small part in this picture.

Research on the Jewish community in the United States has suggested an interesting inter-play of some of these variables.  The latest report on Jewish identity by the Berman Institute indicates that socioeconomic indicators such as education, labor force participation, and income and housing value are positively related to communal identity however they may be negatively related to private religious identity. The multi-regressional analysis supports these hypothesis with a couple of exceptions. These relationships have to be understood keeping in mind some features of the Jewish population and the structure of the synagogues. For instance, most synagogues collect membership contributions from attendees which can explain the higher communal identity at higher income levels.

Understanding the relationship between economic performance of the country or community and the religious attendance is crucial for the team at Fels Research and Consulting working on the Old York Road Revitalization Project. The declining attendance at the synagogues is a cause for worry for all the 7 synagogues in the neighborhood. With a better understanding of the multiple factors influencing religious behavior and identity the consulting team aims to offer a constructive plan for the development of the region and thereby bring back the vibrancy in the Jewish communities.

For more information on the Old York Road Revitalization Project please visit: http://www.fels.upenn.edu/Old-York-Road.

Associate Consultants are graduate students at the Fels Institute of Government. In addition to their work with Fels, Associate Consultants are completing their Master of Public Administration degrees.