Field of Science

Are religious Americans more careful with money?

Dan Hess, at Seattle Pacific University, has looked at whether US cities with more religious people also tend to have fewer people getting into debt trouble.

He analysed data from 120 "Metropolitan Statistical Areas" - places with an average population of 1.7 million. You can see a least of the top 10 most religious, and top 10 least religious, in the box.

Overall, more religious metropolitan areas also had better credit scores, fewer foreclosures (by around two-thirds) and fewer bankruptcies (by around 50%).

These were all significant even after adjusting for other local factors, such as the total population of the area, average income, education, age, and the proportion of ethnic minorities. Hess even adjusted for the percentage of Republican voters in the area.

Hess puts this down to a direct and indirect effects.

Firstly , he proposes a direct effect, saying that:

Christian and Islamic scriptures espouse prudence and speak against carrying debt. For example, “The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives” (Psalms 37:21); “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:7, 8). The Quran states, “If the debtor is in distress, then let there be postponement until he is in ease” (2:280).

Secondly, he says, religion is specifically sought out by "risk-averse individuals who are trying to reduce the anxiety about risk and uncertainty in their lives". As a result, they are naturally less likely to take financial gambles.

Now, both of these could plausibly influence attitudes to financial risk. However, I can't see how the second would have any affect on the average debt levels in a county. Assuming, that is, that there are the same proportion of risk averse people in each area.

Which brings me to another point. Eyeballing that list, it seems to me that the two groups of cities have some pretty major cultural differences - of which religion is a part, but surely not the whole story. It strikes me that the least religious metropoli are well, more cosmopolitan.

By that I mean that they are more culturally diverse and culturally dynamic. They are the sorts of places that might attract risk takers. They also seem to be the sort of places to attract people for whom external show and image are important (extrinsics, in the jargon).

However, my knowledge of American geo-culture is not so hot, despite years of avid telly watching. So I can't really put my finger on what it is - but those cities are just very different!
Dan W. Hess (2012). The Impact of Religiosity on Personal Financial Decisions Journal of Religion & Society, 14 (Link)

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. during the savings and loan crisis, 50% of all bankrupt s&l's were in the state of texas, where several of the "most religious" cities on the list are located. i suspect the pain associated with that bubble is part of what kept texas from participating as much in the more recent tech bubble, but that's speculation, not analysis.

    but, the point is, methinks the "conclusions" are tainted by using only the most recent data, and if a longer data period was used, the "results" would not be nearly so "predictive".


  2. "Are religious Americans more careful with money?"

    Not when they throw it away on Benny Hinn, the BBN, and so forth, no.


  3. I don't know what BBN is but Benny Hinn is despised as a disgusting con man by every Christian I know.

    Now if the governments and bankers had followed the Bible on not getting into debt we wouldn't have had the current economic crisis. My Dad told me that his Dad, a devout Catholic never got into debt and warned against it. Unfortunately my Dad was part of the sixties generation and didn't listen. Its only in the last couple of years that I've rediscovered the faith and realised how right my Grandad was.

    Religion is the river of accumulated wisdom that flows through the generations.


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