It’s well-established that the gap between the middle class and those who earn the highest incomes in the United States has grown wider over time, spurring partisan responses over how or whether to address income inequality.
But there’s a facet of this issue that should be particularly worrisome to Christians: Many of the poorest Americans are abandoning church en masse. By stepping away from church communities, the people who are most financially strapped also end up losing out on social networks and social capital—which can make their economic situation and outlook even worse.
To test the relationship between religion and socioeconomic status, I took four income brackets (adjusted for inflation over the time) from the General Social Survey (GSS) and calculated the share that said they never attended religious services. The change over the last 46 years was stunning.
In the 1970s, the difference in church attendance among the four income groups was relatively small (about 5%). That gap has widened significantly over the last four decades, with a noticeable spike in recent years. In 2018, a quarter of the wealthiest Americans reported never attending services, while the share of those in the bottom bracket who never darkened a church door was over 35 percent. In essence, the inequality gap in attendance has now doubled.
The growing social gap between the rich and poor extends beyond church attendance, as Americans in the lowest income bracket report being increasingly isolated from their own communities overall.
Based on four GSS questions about socializing with friends, family, and neighbors over the last year—grouped together as measure of social activity—there were no significant differences among the various income levels as late as the mid-1990s. But since that point, even social activity has become divided between the haves and have-nots.
Those at the top of the income ladder have become even more social since 2000, while those at the bottom are rapidly becoming more isolated. While the gap between the top and the bottom was essentially zero in 1996, it’s reached 1.5 points.
By and large, people who have less active social lives are more likely to never attend a worship service, although the rates of change are noteworthy.
Consider this: 40 percent of individuals who are in the bottom quartile of the income spectrum and engage in few social activities never attend church. That’s twice the rate of someone in the top income bracket who has an active social life.
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Source: Christianity Today