Religion helps shape wealth of Americans, study finds

September 16, 2003

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A new national study shows that religious affiliation plays a powerful role in how much wealth Americans accumulate, with Jews amassing the most wealth and conservative Protestants the least.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics fall in between and are about average with the rest of the population in terms of overall wealth.

Moreover, people who attend religious services regularly build more wealth than those who don't, the study found.

The effect of religion is robust, even after taking into account inheritances, levels of education and other factors affecting wealth that may be associated with particular religious denominations, said Lisa Keister, author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"Religion is an important factor in wealth accumulation, a factor that hasn't received a lot of attention," Keister said.

"The results suggest people draw on the tools they learn from religion to develop strategies for saving, investing and spending, and those tools may be different in various faiths."

The study is published in the September issue of the journal Social Forces.

Keister used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The NLSY is a nationwide survey, conducted by Ohio State for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which follows a group of people over time, visiting each participant annually or biennially. She used data on 4,950 participants collected from 1985 through 1998.

Overall, the median net worth of Jewish people in the survey was $150,890, more than three times the median for the entire sample ($48,200). The median net worth for conservative Protestants (which included Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, among others) was $26,200, or about half the overall average. The median net worth of mainstream Protestants (including Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Unitarians and others) and Catholics were similar to each other and about the average for the whole sample.

While some may say that the results confirm religious stereotypes, such as the contention that Jewish people are greedy and acquisitive, Keister strongly disagrees.

"What I'm finding is that families have a powerful influence on how people learn to save, and religion is often an important part of family life," Keister said. "The things children are taught in Jewish homes are very different than those that are taught in conservative Protestant homes."

But it wasn't just religious affiliation itself that had an impact on wealth accumulation. The study found that people who regularly attended religious services tended to be more wealthy.

"It seems strange - why should it matter whether you go to church in terms of building wealth?" Keister said. "But going to religious services may be another opportunity, especially for Jews, to be indoctrinated with beliefs that help build wealth. Also, it is a social network issue - a church or synagogue can be a good place to meet people with investment tips or money to loan for a new business."

The religious beliefs children learn in their families translate into educational attainment, adult occupations, financial literacy, social connections and other factors that influence adult wealth ownership, she said.

Religious teachings of different faiths may influence spending and saving strategies in a variety of ways, according to Keister.

For example, conservative Protestants often emphasize prayer and trust in God, which may reduce their desire to invest. Conservative Protestants also look forward to the rewards of the afterlife and don't promote acquiring wealth as a good for this life.

Jews, on the other hand, don't have a strong orientation to the afterlife, but encourage pursuits that will lead to wealth accumulation, such as high-income careers and investing.

Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics were at one time distinct from each other and from the rest of the population, Keister said, but this study shows that the distinctiveness has diminished in recent years. The result is that both groups look like the rest of the population in terms of wealth.

These religious backgrounds lead people of various faiths to take different financial trajectories in their lives, Keister said.

In the study, she examined how religious affiliation related to some typical financial trajectories for Americans. For example, only 1 percent of Jewish people remained asset poor throughout life, compared to 15 percent of conservative Protestants. About 9 percent of mainline Protestants and 7 percent of Catholics followed this trajectory.

The most common trajectory is to buy a home relatively early in life and then accumulate other assets, such as stocks and bonds, later. About 35 percent of Jews followed this path, compared to 3 percent of conservative Protestants, 22 percent of mainline Protestants and 20 percent of Catholics.

Jewish people stood out in a third trajectory in which people invest early in life in high-risk, high-return assets such as stocks and bonds and build wealth quickly while putting less emphasis on homeownership. About one-third of Jews followed this path, compared to no conservative Protestants, 7 percent of mainline Protestants and 4 percent of Catholics.

Keister emphasized that religion is only one among many factors that influence wealth. This research is part of a larger series of studies Keister is doing to explain why some people accumulate more wealth than others. She said that once she began studying wealth, the impact of religion stood out plainly.

"Religion keeps coming up in any model you run to explain wealth," she said. "It's something you can't ignore, but there's been little effort to explain the connection between religion and wealth accumulation."

Keister said she hopes the results of the study can be used to help others build more wealth.

"There are lessons to be learned here," she said. "For example, we can take what we see happening in Jewish families and translate that into ways to help others teach their children about building wealth."
The study was partially funded by the American Sociological Association.

Contact: Lisa Keister, (614) 688-8685;
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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