[Paleopsych] Economist: Economics focus: Wealth from worship

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Economics focus: Wealth from worship

    Dec 20th 2005

    An economist finds that going to church is more than its own reward

    AT CHRISTMAS, many people do things they would never dream of the rest
    of the year, from giving presents to getting drunk. Some even go to
    church. Attendance soars, as millions of once-a-year worshippers fill
    the pews. In Britain, where most weeks fewer than one person in ten
    goes to church, attendance more than triples. Even in America, where
    two-fifths of the people say they go frequently, the share climbs in

    Some of the occasional churchgoers must wonder whether they might
    benefit from turning up more often. If they did so, they could gain
    more than spiritual nourishment. Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that regular religious
    participation leads to better education, higher income and a lower
    chance of divorce. His results* (based on data covering non-Hispanic
    white Americans of several Christian denominations, other faiths and
    none) imply that doubling church attendance raises someone's income by
    almost 10%.

    The idea that religion can bring material advantages has a
    distinguished history. A century ago Max Weber argued that the
    Protestant work ethic lay behind Europe's prosperity. More recently
    Robert Barro, a professor at Harvard, has been examining the links
    between religion and economic growth (his work was reviewed here in
    November 2003). At the microeconomic level, several studies have
    concluded that religious participation is associated with lower rates
    of crime, drug use and so forth. Richard Freeman, another Harvard
    economist, found 20 years ago that churchgoing black youths were more
    likely to attend school and less likely to commit crimes or use drugs.

    Until recently, however, there was little quantitative research on
    whether religion affects income directly and if so, by how much. A big
    obstacle is the difficulty of disentangling cause and effect. That
    frequent churchgoers have higher incomes than non-churchgoers does not
    prove that religion made them richer. It might be that richer people
    are likelier to go to church. Or unrelated traits, such as greater
    ambition or personal discipline, could lead people both to go to
    church and also to succeed in their work.

    To distinguish cause from coincidence, Mr Gruber uses information on
    the ethnic mix of neighbourhoods and congregations. Sociologists have
    long argued that people are more likely to go to church if their
    neighbours share their faith. Thus Poles in Boston (which has lots of
    Italian and Irish Catholics) are more likely to attend mass than Poles
    in Minneapolis (which has more Scandinavian Protestants). Measuring
    the density of nationalities that share a religion in a particular
    city can therefore be a good predictor of church attendance.

    But ethnic density is not wholly independent of income. Studies have
    found that people who live with lots of others of the same ethnic
    origin tend to be worse off than those who are not "ghettoised". So Mr
    Gruber excludes an individual's own group from the measures, and
    instead calculates the density of "co-religionists", the proportion of
    the population that shares your religion but not your race.

    According to Mr Gruber's calculations, a 10% increase in the density
    of co-religionists leads to an 8.5% rise in churchgoing. Once he has
    controlled for other inter-city differences, Mr Gruber finds that a
    10% increase in the density of co-religionists leads to a 0.9% rise in
    income. In other words, because there are lots of non-Polish Catholics
    in Boston and few in Minnesota, Poles in Boston both go to church more
    often and are materially better off relative to, say, Swedes in Boston
    than Poles in Minnesota relative to Swedes in Minnesota.

    Mr Gruber finds little evidence that living near different ethnic
    groups of the same faith affects any other civic activity. Poles in
    Boston are no more likely to join secular organisations than Poles in
    Minnesota. Since general differences between cities are already
    controlled for, that leads him to conclude that it must be religious
    attendance that is driving the differences in income.

    Looking for a cause

    Other economists, though they think Mr Gruber's approach is clever,
    are not sure that he has established a causal link between religious
    attendance and wealth. So how might churchgoing make you richer? Mr
    Gruber offers several possibilities. One plausible idea is that going
    to church yields "social capital", a web of relationships that fosters
    trust. Economists think such ties can be valuable, because they make
    business dealings smoother and transactions cheaper. Churchgoing may
    simply be an efficient way of creating them.

    Another possibility is that a church's members enjoy mutual emotional
    and (maybe) financial insurance. That allows them to recover more
    quickly from setbacks, such as the loss of a job, than they would
    without the support of fellow parishioners. Or perhaps religion and
    wealth are linked through education. Mr Gruber's results suggest that
    higher church attendance leads to more years at school and less chance
    of dropping out of college. A vibrant church might also boost the
    number of religious schools, which in turn could raise academic

    Finally, religious faith itself might be the channel through which
    churchgoers become richer. Perhaps, Mr Gruber muses, the faithful may
    be "less stressed out" about life's daily travails and thus better
    equipped for success. This may make religion more appealing to some of
    those who turn up only once a year. But given that Jesus warned his
    followers against storing up treasures on earth, you might think that
    this wasn't the motivation for going to church that he had in mind.

    * "Religious Market Structure, Religious Participation and Outcomes:
    Is Religion Good for You?", NBER Working Paper 11377, May 2005

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