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God Coefficient

Being a Hindu in the US almost guarantees being rich. A survey finds curious correlations between an American's creed and his cash balance.

world Updated: May 15, 2011 00:30 IST

Being a Hindu in the US almost guarantees being rich. A survey finds curious correlations between an American's creed and his cash balance.

The economic differences among Americans of various religions are strikingly large, much larger than the differences among states and even larger than those among racial groups. Moderate Jews and Hindus were shown to be the religions most strongly linked to wealth.

The most affluent of the major religions - including "secularism" as a religion - is Reform Judaism. Sixty-seven per cent of Reform Jewish households made more than $75,000 a year at the time the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life collected the data, compared with only 31% of the population as a whole. Hindus were second, at 65%, and Conservative Jews were third, at 57%.

On the other end are Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptists. In each case, 20% or fewer of followers made at least $75,000. Remarkably, the share of Baptist households making $40,000 or less is roughly the same as the share of Reform Jews making $100,000 or more.

Overall, Protestants, who together are the country's largest religious group, are poorer than average and poorer than Catholics. That stands in contrast to the long history, made famous by sociologist Max Weber, of Protestant nations generally being richer than Catholic nations. And talk of a superior Protestant work ethic.

Many factors are behind the discrepancies among religions, but one stands out. The relationship between education and income is so strong that you can almost draw a line through the points on this graph. Social science rarely produces results this clean.

What about the modest outliers - like Unitarians, Buddhists and Orthodox Christians, all of whom are less affluent than they are educated (and are below the imaginary line)? One possible explanation is that some religions are more likely to produce, or to attract, people who voluntarily choose lower-paying jobs, like teaching.

Another potential explanation is discrimination. Scott Keeter of Pew notes that researchers have used more sophisticated versions of this sort of analysis to look for patterns of marketplace discrimination.

And a few of the religions that make less than their education would suggest have largely nonwhite followings, including Buddhism and Hinduism.

Pew also created a category of traditionally black Protestant congregations, and it was somewhat poorer than could be explained by education levels. These patterns don't prove discrimination, but they raise questions.

Some of the income differences probably stem from culture. Some faiths place great importance on formal education. But the differences are also self-reinforcing.

People who make more money can send their children to better schools, exacerbating the many advantages they have over poorer children. Round and round, the cycle goes. It won't solve itself.

Not everyone finds this correlation convincing.

An online comment by "ACW" from New Jersey wrote that there was "No surprise in these findings." This commentator wrote, "I would wager the Hindu community comprises Indian professionals who have immigrated and been recently naturalised…a self-selected community of the already affluent." This group would have postgraduate degrees because "that is why they are here." He added, "If you look at India itself, you will find no correlation between Hinduism and income."

This commentator pointed out that "Baptists, Witnesses, and Pentecostals have a high proportion of black members, and black Americans have historically lagged behind in educational opportunities."