A number of recent studies have confirmed the links found by a number of previous studies that religious commitment -- in most cases Christian commitment measured by church attendance -- has substantial social benefits for America’s youth. In this post I will focus on three studies that I have recently reviewed. All three studies find significant benefits of religious commitment for America's youth, with two studies focusing exclusively on the beneficial affects of religious commitment on disadvantaged youth. I have linked to PDFS of each study.
The Role of Religious and Social Organization in the Lives of Disadvantaged Youth
The first study is “The Role of Religious and Social Organization in the Lives of Disadvantaged Youth,” submitted at the NBER Conference, April 13-14, 2007, hosted by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, by Rajeev Dehejia, Thomas DeLeiere, and John Mitchell (August 2007). This study focused on the buffering effect religion had on a number of outcomes (such as the adult child's income, education, health, and psychological well being) and associated childhood disadvantages (such as family income and poverty measures, parental education, and parental assessments of the child). The study examined whether by adulthood, “children whose parents were involved with religious and social organizations suffered less harm from growing up in a disadvantaged environment than children whose parents were less involved.” Id. at 2. The researchers conclude that religion did have such a beneficial effect.
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 found buffering effects for a number of other outcome-disadvantaged pairs. We generally find much weaker effects for other social organizations.
Id. at 1.
For example, having a mother with a high school degree or less significantly lowers the likelihood that the adult child will graduate from high school and obtain at least some college education. For the child whose parent was not active in their church, the probability of obtaining some college decreases by 31 points. For the similarly situated child whose parent was active in church, the effect is reduced to 16 points. Put another way, religious involvement buffers 48 percent of the negative effect and significantly increases a child's educational outlook. Id. 19. All told, the buffering effect of religious involvement was strongest on education, being a smoker, and income levels. Id. 21-23. Notably, the study found “no case of a significantly negative buffering effect.” Id. at 21.
Other social organizations had significantly less or no buffering affect on disadvantage outcomes. Community organizations (such as veterans organizations or political groups) have some positive effects in a few categories, but work-related organizations (such as labor unions) have none. Id. at 23. Involvement in leisure groups (such as sports or youth groups) had significantly more buffering effect than community organizations, but significantly less than religious organizations. Id. at 24.
The Impact of Religion on Youth in Disadvantaged Families
Next, is a study presented in June 2007 at a National Poverty Center conference hosted by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan. The study is titled, “The Impact of Religion on Youth in Disadvantaged Families,” by Dean R. Lillard and Joseph Price.
The study begins by noting that many previous studies have shown a strong relationship between religious attendance and “good” social outcomes for youth. The study itself used data from the NLSY79 (a nationally representative sample of 12,686 young men and women who were 14-22 years old when they were first surveyed in 1979 and have been interviewed annually through 1994 and are currently interviewed on a biennial basis), PSID (another national longitudinal study tracking 8,000 families since 1968), and Monitoring the Future (an ongoing annual survey of 50,000 8th, 10th and 12th grade students), and found “that youth who attend church more often are less likely to commit property or violent crimes and are less likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, and receive a ticket.” Id. at 1. The study also found a significant drop in the "behavioral problem index" and an increase in reading test scores indicating increased child cognitive achievement.
The study suggested that religion provides a number of mechanisms that may be responsible for this beneficial effect.
There are several possible mechanisms through which religious organizations can produce non-cognitive skills in youth. They teach and reinforce a fairly well defined set of values in Sunday services and other classes. Churches reduce the cost of monitoring what youth do by establishing and running youth groups that meet on a regular basis in addition to regular church services. In addition, members of the church also monitor youth behavior and provide examples for children to emulate. Other mechanisms mentioned by Sherkat and Ellison (1999) include the role that churches play in helping youth internalize moral messages and norms, creating fear of divine punishment or social sanctions from church and peers.Id. at 3.
The Great Escape: How Religion alters the Delinquent Behavior of High-Risk Adolescents
Finally, there is a study released by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, titled, "The Great Escape: How Religion alters the Delinquent Behavior of High-Risk Adolescents," Byron R. Johnson and Marc V. Siegel (2008). The Great Escape examines “the potential importance of religious commitment in protecting and supporting black male youth in escaping from the crime of inner cities.”
This study is based on survey data from 2,358 young black males in poverty tracts in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. It added several variables to the survey in order to "separate the effect of religiosity from other possible factors," including "age, education, single parent at age 14, public housing, belief in education and work, commitment to work, productive hours and gang membership." Id. at 7.
The authors of the study discussed a number of possible mechanisms by which religious commitment may have a positive effect on the behavior of disadvantaged black males.
Why, though, should we expect religiously committed adolescents to be more likely than their non-religious peers to refrain from deviant activities? A fundamental answer is that those youth who frequently attend religious services and consider religion an important part of their lives are more likely to be bonded to an institution of informal social control which non-religious youth are not, namely, religious institutions such as the church. Thus, sanctions derived from religion, which non-religious youth are less likely to be subject to, are expected to influence the activities that religious youth partake in. As far as guidance is concerned, youth regularly attending church are expected to: (1) be attached to the church (i.e., church members and groups); (2 ) be committed to church teachings and principles; (3 ) be involved in church-oriented activities and lifestyles; (4 ) have conventional beliefs developed through the church and strengthened through their religion and (5) have been exposed to an overload of rationale favorable to conformity over those favorable to deviance.
Id. at 5.
The study found that religious commitment as measured by attendance at religious services "significantly reduce non-drug illegal activities, drug use, and drug dealing among disadvantaged youth." Attitudinal measures of religious commitment, such as self-reporting on the importance of religion in the participant's life, was "not significantly linked to reductions in juvenile delinquency." Id., at 3. Further, the study found that "church attendance not only impacts minor crimes, but more serious forms of deviance as well.” Id. at 8.
Here is a break down of the results:
* For non-drug crime, the probability of committing a crime was 31% for participants who did not attend church, but 19% for those who attended more than once a week (holding all other factors at their means). This was a 39% reduction in the risk of committing a non-drug crime. Id. at 9.
* For drug use, the probability of using illegal drugs for non-attenders was 48% and 26% for those who attended more than once a week. This was a 48% reduction in the risk of illegal drug use. Id. at 9.
* For drug-dealing related crimes, the probability was 33% for non-attenders and 14% for regular attenders. This was a 57% reduction in the risk of engaging in drug dealing. Id. at 9.