Is Religion in America Good for the Poor?


Faculty ResearcherMary Jo Bane, Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title Social Conscience and Politics in the United States of America: Reflections

Americans are more religious than Europeans and people who live in other economically advanced countries. But America has much less generous public policies toward the poor.

This poses a puzzle, argues Mary Jo Bane, Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management, in an article published in the International Journal of Public Theology. In much larger numbers than western Europeans, Americans report that God and religion are very important in their lives. They also report attending church two and a half times as often as western Europeans.

But the U.S. poverty rate, when measured by an international metric, was the highest, at 17 percent, among 11 rich countries. Germany, for example, had a poverty rate of 8 percent, and Finland a poverty rate of 5 percent.

Much of the gap can be attributed to differences in social welfare policy — especially the generosity, or lack thereof, of social safety nets and cash assistance for the poor. The United States spends about 11 percent of its gross domestic product on social welfare benefits and other transfer policies, compared with about 18 percent of gdp in the countries of continental Europe.

A large majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian, a theology that emphasizes concern for the poor.

Americans profess religious beliefs that imply concern for the poor, but their public actions seem to belie those commitments, Bane notes. She speculates that this might be understood in part by considering two features of American religious life: its historical adaptation to American culture, and its organizational forms.

The United States does not have an established church — a feature of American life guaranteed by the Constitution. Congreagations as well as religious denominations compete for adherents. Religious bodies attract members with messages and services that validate ambition and striving, and hold out the promise of a better life on earth as well as in the hereafter. The Catholic Church in the 19th century, for example, provided the settings and the schools for immigrant Catholics to assimilate into the U.S. economy and society. In contemporary America, surveys find that regular churchgoers are more likely than non-churchgoers to believe that America is the land of opportunity and that the poor could escape poverty if they worked harder. The religiously unaffiliated are more likely to agree that “government should care for people who can’t care for themselves.” Bane explains that “much of American religion at the local level embodies an individualistic attitude toward government and toward the poor, a distrust of large authoritarian institutions and an emphasis on private charity.”

Bane further speculates that the segregation and polarization of American society and politics are reinforced by the way religious congregations are organized and by the fact that people feel free to shop for congenial congregations. Americans sort themselves into congregations that are economically stratified and like-minded. This sorting probably contributes to a difficulty in coming together politically to support the poor.

But Bane concludes on a note of optimism. “If such reinforcing tendencies have contributed, even in part, to America’s dismal record on poverty and poverty alleviation, they may have implications for a possible renewal of social conscience in America.”

Focusing specifically on the Catholic Church, Bane points to the role it could play in fostering a spirit of voluntarism and service and in setting an example for reasoned dialogue, such as bringing together the pro-life and pro-poor movements. “If at least some parts of the American citizenry, perhaps Catholic, could explore public issues without shouting at each other,” Bane concludes, “it might be possible to make some progress toward an American approach to poverty that was more consistent with the facts about mobility and opportunity, and more open to a combination of public and voluntary action.”

— by Robert O’Neill

“If such reinforcing tendencies have contributed, even in part, to America’s dismal record on poverty and poverty alleviation, they may have implications for a possible renewal of social conscience in America.”

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