Can Religion Offset the Effects of Child Poverty?

Dubner and Levitt have written quite a bit about parenting, both in Freakonomics and on this blog. In particular, they’ve focused on what parents can do to help produce “successful” offspring. The key, they’ve found, is this: be well-educated and successful yourself, and your children are more likely to follow suit.

But what about children from impoverished backgrounds? What steps can poor parents take to counterbalance the effects of poverty?

According to Rajeev Dehejia, an economics professor at Tufts University, one answer may be to join a church. Dehejia, along with Thomas DeLeire, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Erzo Luttmer and Josh Mitchell, from the Harvard economics department, have written a new working paper called “The Role of Religious and Social Organizations in the Lives of Disadvantaged Youth.” In it, they test the impact of religion on more than 20,000 children raised by “disadvantaged” families, as defined by factors like family income, the parents’ levels of education, and “child characteristics including parental assessments of the child.” Using the National Survey of Families and Households, they questioned each child on the amount of involvement his or her parent had with a religious organization, then observed the child’s outcome 13 to 15 years later, as measured by education, income, and levels of health and psychological well-being.

Their findings are summarized as follows:

Overall, we find strong evidence that youth with religiously active parents are less affected later in life by childhood disadvantage than youth whose parents did not frequently attend religious services. These buffering effects of religious organizations are most pronounced when outcomes are measured by high school graduation or non-smoking and when disadvantage is measured by family resources or maternal education, but we also find buffering effects for a number of other outcome-disadvantage pairs. We generally find much weaker buffering effects for other social organizations.

Of course, a parent’s decision to practice a religion may coincide with other traits like self-discipline, community involvement, and mentoring skills, all of which will likely affect a child’s upbringing. Not to mention the fact that the authors offer no analysis of whether a parent’s including the child in the religion has any effect:

Our data do not allow us to determine to what extent the buffering effects are driven by religious organizations actively intervening in the lives of disadvantaged youth (through tutoring, mentoring, or financial assistance) as opposed to providing the youth with motivation, values, or attitudes that lead to better outcomes.

Still, it appears that, particularly where education and smoking habits are concerned, a parent’s heading to a church, synagogue, or mosque might be useful in counteracting the negative effects of child poverty.

Assuming, of course, the parents aren’t also stocking their child’s bedroom with copies of Richard Dawkins.


What if they ARE stocking their kids' rooms with Dawkins? Do we have evidence that it is the Divine Presence itself that results in these kids' better outcomes? Will a dose of rational literature bring down the anger for which YHVH is so rightly famous?

Or... could it be the fact that the family can be part of a supportive community that reinforces abstinence from some of the more destructive vices? Just maybe the better outcomes prevail IN SPITE OF the mythology and irrationality....

For a practitioner of what should be the most rational pursuit, you do seem to have a soft spot for the anti-rational. What's next, endorsing The Secret?


Could it be that in these crummy countries the church is the only institution that has enough funding to support families? Back when you needed to be a member of a religion to go to a hospital, being religious meant better health. All this points out is that in the absence of a properly funded secular support structure, some religious institutions are better than nothing.

Evan Kane

I suspect that if the authors of this study had included any of the societies belonging to the American Ethical Union (and I also suspect they didn't) they would have found the same results as they did in theist groups.

I also suspect the authors of the study are suffering the delusion of a false correlation.

12: Every follower of one of the 3 "great" religions is "paying lip service." They pick and choose concepts from books that are so riddled with contradictions as to permit any interpretation a reader chooses to make. American Atheists might be angry, but radical? Has their ever been a person who blew themselves up, killed a doctor, destroyed a home, in the name of atheism? If you had to live with the effects and influences of people arguing over what color unicorn to believe in, you might be angry too.



I would disagree that suicide bombers are blowing themselves up to promote their religion – that has never been implied in any of bin ladin's pontifications or Salafist writings. They are hitting back at those they perceive to be the enemy of God, or those they perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be oppressing them.

Your argument may be correct in reference to Stalin, but not in regards to Mao. Chinese Buddhism has no analogue to the church as institution or a Pope as a rival leader. There is no central authority who is a competitor. Mao truly believed religion was the opiate of the people, and to improve the humanity under his care, discouraged them heartily from indulging.


I linked to this article from
I hafta concur with many of the ideas expressed above.

As far as I'm aware, there is no church which would turn away a visitor or potential member. So even a poor family could come in and be welcomed at the biggest megachurch. Their children would have the opportunities to meet learn from and perhaps later date and marry other kids from a different socioeconomic strata. The mechanism for social caste mobility represented by a heterogeneous church cannot be understated.


The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is very family friendly, notwithstanding the occasional pirate-speak vulgarity, and welcomes disadvantaged families.

Pastafarian youngsters who learn the joy of being touched by His noodly appendage have much better results in life. Plus they get to wear eye patches and practice sword-fighting.


I take exception to calling the religious "anti-rational". Christians, for instance, are more that competent in the marketplace of ideas, as evidenced by C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and even St. Augustine himself. Disagree if you wish, but don't dismiss a long list of noteable scholars as irrational.

P.S. I don't think Melissa or the authors of the study are claiming anything like existence of God from this study. Simply a correlational relationship of Church-going.


maybe he's postmodern and doesn't care as much for irrational rationality


To look at just the Christian religion for a moment, one of the central claims of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament is that the followers of Christ a) turned away from "sin" and turned toward a holy lifestyle and b) were brought together into a supportive, redemptive community. See Acts 2:42-28 for just one passage among many that make this claim.

More broadly, I think virtually all religious leaders would agree that their religion provides "a supportive community that reinforces abstinence from some of the more destructive vices." If "rationality" leads to the opposite (a destructive individualism that encourages vice?), then who's being irrational here?


If a church provides a stable, supportive community that provides children with moral friends and educational resources, it seems hardly surprising that it would improve their lives. Even a wicked athiest like myself can see the value in a building where people go to be nice to one another and get help with their kids!


Could it be that the researchers are merely using statistical analysis to prove their prior ideological biases?
(url references Levitt, Ayres, and Lott)

I'd like to see research that compares going to church Sunday mornings with reading and/or exercising instead. My ideological bias is that the latter alternatives would greatly benefit most Americans.


I would guess that it's a combination of providing support and role models, a perceived obligation to intervene in the lives of the poor, and a sense of religious obligation preventing people from drifting away from the organization (as people are rather wont to do, as anyone that's ever joined an ever-shrinking reading group can attest).


Urban Promise drives me personally bonkers-their volunteers float around glowing with their own self-satsfaction in doing God's work, saving souls, blah blah blah. It's enough to make me choke on the aspartame sweetness.

But they're one of the few groups working in Camden, New Jersey--one of the poorest cities in the country (a friend of mine calls it the "third world in the first"--it's depressingly accurate). They're reaching out and trying doing good. They're staying involved in these children's lives and proving stability in an environment where almost all the children are being raised in single parent homes and nearly all of them have been arrested at least once.

I can't imagine how being involved with a group like that WOULDN'T help.



It would be best to compare success rates of disadvantaged and impoverished children reared in strong, secular organizations (such as the Order of the Moose, the Masons, the SCA, or the Freethought and Ethical Culture societies) to children reared in religious ones. While I don't currently have enough data to constitute a set, I would suspect that a child raised in any organization would turn out better than one reared in both poverty and isolation from community. Having grown up myself in a marginally deist household with strong ties to the Masons and the Moose, I can affirm that these mostly secular organizations do instill a sense of belonging, self-worth, security (especially the Moose, with Mooseheart and the social services they provide) and ethical stability that I would not have had if my mother and grandmother had not been members. I would say the same is true for the SCA kids I've seen at events my partner attends. It's not the religion that provides the structure and social benefit, but the community that coalesces around the religion (or organization).

As has been said a lot, it takes a village.


Rev. Ian Edwards

I know it can be heretical to reference Gladwell on the freakonomics blog, but there is also the importance of weak connections and acquaintances. Exposure to those who aren't a part of your normal social group, combined with the redemptive aspects already mentioned, goes a long way. Growing up in a mainstream Protestant church, my friends and I got most of our first jobs from people in the church who were not necessarily part of our parent's close network. I can imagine this exposure would work for youth who are disadvantaged, leading to a higher level of employment.


4: "I don't think Melissa or the authors of the study are claiming anything like existence of God from this study. Simply a correlational relationship of Church-going."

I completely agree.

Easy, Internet radical athiests. I know you're angry and frustrated with the radical Christians, but surely you can understand that there may be some benefit to those that regularly attend religious services - at least for those that 'live it' to some extent and not just pay lip service.


This couldn't be more timely. I just finished having a discussion with my wife a couple of days ago about why things are so bad in our old neighborhood. We both grew up fairly disadvantaged, inner-city, blah, blah, blah and we both were regulars at church. She happily attended a white-collar megachurch with lots and lots of activities for the members. I unhappily attended a number of different blue-collar storefront churches.

We both spent untold hours in church, she doing programs, activities, and events. I spent most of my time in church doing, well, church.

We are both first-generation college grads.

One of her fondest memories is when her Pastor would have people from various professions stand up for recognition. All of the doctors. Lawyers. Teachers.

My fondest memory is listening to old women confess to their wayward pasts, full of drinking and whoring and drug use.

In the end, we both agree that being a part of a church community helped shape us. It taught us that there are things for which you have to dress up. It taught us to be respectful. It taught us that there was something greater than us. It showed us that not everyone that was in the world was OF the world, as the old folks say.

It taught us that we had choices.

The main place where we disagree is the extent to which religious teachings had an impact. My theory is that we could have spent most of those hours in a state of suspended animation and it would have done a large chunk of the good--the key was that we were off the street. The wife disagrees.



Want successful children? Join the Mormon Church.


First of all, "Of course, a parent's decision to practice a religion may coincide with other traits like self-discipline, community involvement, and mentoring skills, all of which will likely affect a child's upbringing"???? So, a parent who decides not to practice a religion is undisciplined, uninvolved in the community, and is a poor mentor? Are you serious? That is a grossly unfair and inaccurate assessment.

Secondly, this study correlates a child's success to the parents' religiosity. It has nothing to do with the child's religiosity. My parents are pretty religious, I am far from it. My parents forced me to go to church while I lived under their roof, but I haven't stepped foot in one since. I would like to know the percentage of children surveyed who identified themselves as religious, and the percentage who continue to attend church and consider themselves as religious into adulthood. I am particularly interested in the percentage who are religious/attend church after attaining a higher education.

The bottom line is, this is one study that suggests some positive influences of religion on a child. A variety of factors may be involved, including the role of a supportive, interactive social group that involves both adult mentors and peers, or potential financial assistance (some churches even pay for their members to attend certain colleges). What you can not conclude from this study is that religion itself is responsible. After all, their religiosity clearly did nothing for the parents who, we know because they are included in the study, are "disadvantaged."



A small sample size, but my family's evidence bears out the result. Disadvantaged in every way but race and married parents (economic, depressed neighborhood, inner city schools, parents' education etc.) and 3 of 5 children have, or nearly have masters degrees and I am a couple months short of a PhD. 3 of 5 are significantly economically advantaged and 2 are in stable marriages. We travel broadly, one lives abroad, etc. 1 of the other 2 is in a stable family situation, finished high school, and had no aspirations to higher education and the last is not old enough to say.

We spent most spare hours in church, in the presence of other stable, privileged families. My perception is that we got a taste of cultured and affluent living from those examples and determined to make the labor/leisure trade-offs required to obtain or exceed such a lifestyle. I think we also learned to manage money from those examples, allowing us to pursue the educational opportunities available.


Jolly Bloger

Yes, lies and threats do tend to work on children. Don't smoke or you'll go to hell! Don't fight or you'll go to hell! Eat your vegetables or you'll go to hell!
I probably would have met one or two metrics of success a little better too if I had been scared of fire and brimstone at every turn. What else will make children more successful? Maybe Ritalin for every child! Maybe physical violence. If we beat our children and they smoke less, does that make it worth it?