07/29/2013 01:13 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2013

Religion and Income Inequality: The Paradox of the South

The New York Times recently reported on a new study by economists from Harvard and UC Berkeley on income mobility across the country. The research team found stark differences by geographical region, with the odds of moving to a different income bracket being lowest in the southeast and higher in major metropolitan areas. They identified four broad factors in areas that contribute to income mobility: mixed-income neighborhoods, two-parent households, better schools, and higher rates of civic engagement, "including membership in religious and community groups."

Why religion? There are numerous reasons, but I'd like to highlight one in particular: Religious communities as a source of social capital. As Robert Putnam addressed in Bowling Alone, religious institutions such as churches, synagogues, and mosques bring people together in a way that strengthens community life. This is vital in a society that is increasingly fragmented. This connectedness likely affects income mobility via social capital -- the relationships and relational networks that lend themselves to the exchange of knowledge and resources. For instance, in a religious community, people might form relationships that lead to helpful information about finding a job, navigating social services, or starting a business. Rich relational networks also have payoffs for education, which has natural dividends for income mobility. Being involved in a religious community gives kids the opportunity to have multiple adults in their lives who are invested in their well-being, as documented by sociologist James Coleman and others. These overlapping social relationships (e.g., knowing an adult from the neighborhood, but also attending mosque with them) can reinforce social norms that are beneficial for educational outcomes.

Another perk is that social capital networks can help people access valuable information that helps them navigate the educational system, which has particular dividends for low-income students. In a study of first-year college students, I found that Korean American low-income youth had a particularly high rate of taking SAT preparatory classes. Taking SAT prep was higher for Korean Americans who identified as Protestant, and I suggested that these students are able to access information about applying to college through social networks in economically diverse immigrant churches.

Such social connections can potentially happen in any type of civic organization (and the Harvard/Berkeley study highlights the role of membership in non-religious community groups), but religious institutions tend to be relatively enduring. They often provide a joint social service function, especially among immigrant populations, and can provide rhetorical frameworks that help people endure through difficult times ("Remember Moses wandering through the desert...").

Given all of the benefits of religious involvement, why is income mobility lowest in the South, given its high religiosity? As a social scientist, I am curious to know whether there is something different about religion in the South, or is it that the other elements that boost income mobility (two parent households, mixed-income neighborhoods, good schools) are somehow lagging in the South? Or is it some combination of all of the above? One hypothesis might be that Southerners are more likely to worship in megachurches, which might be less likely to foster the social relationships and networks that contribute to income mobility. A map of megachurches in the U.S. provides some evidence that there are more megachurches in the South, but we need more research on the social interactions that take place in these churches to draw any conclusions.

Another idea is that White evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, a prominent Southern demographic, tend to support individualist explanations and solutions for inequality. This trend is documented by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith in their book Divided by Faith. By individualist, I mean "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" versus questioning whether there are bootstraps there to begin with. This tendency may lead to diminished support for government spending -- not just federal, but also state and local -- on schools and other policy initiatives that could enhance income mobility. I recommend David Swartz'sThe Moral Minority for a fascinating read on the political diversity of evangelicals.

Overall the causes for low income mobility in the South and elsewhere are difficult to isolate because they are most likely interconnected: In the South, high religiosity likely has some positive dividends for income mobility, but the effects may be blunted by other ramifications of religious practice and belief. Naturally there is diversity both within and between religious traditions. There is no neat and tidy answer for the pervasiveness of income inequality, but understanding how religion affects people's beliefs about the solutions needed to strengthen families, schools, and neighborhoods is a critical part of the puzzle.

Julie J. Park is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education (Rutgers University Press).