Social Justice and Diversity

The psychology of religion and poverty

The Task Force on Religion and Poverty is hard at work.
By Taylor Mefford

Poverty is a major predictor of many adverse outcomes for adolescents, including academic challenges, misuse of alcohol and other drugs, teenage pregnancy and violent behavior (Compton, Thomas, Stinson, & Grant, 2007; Ferguson, Bovaird, & Mueller, 2007). This relationship is partially accounted for by the family environment; affected by the stress of poverty, parents who are physically and emotionally under-resourced face a greater challenge in meeting the developmental needs of their children (Dishion & Snyder, 2016; Van Ryzin & Dishion, 2014). In a recent article, Van Ryzin, Fishbein, and Biglan (2017) indicated the necessity of top-down, evidence-based interventions which resolve familial challenges through addressing poverty at the societal level.

Just as poverty is a deeply influential sociocultural phenomenon, so is religion, and the two have a long and complicated history. Though many major world religions have encouraged providing help to the poor, religion has also played a major role in the perpetuation of poverty, and understanding the factors influencing these conflicting forces is vital to addressing poverty itself (Schweiger, 2019). Particularly as Western society adopts secular (and now post-secular) worldviews and as the benefits and detriments of organized religion are scrutinized, the purpose of religious institutions is being called into question In this unique situation, religious organizations have the opportunity to position themselves as leaders in the fight against deep poverty. As psychological researchers and mental health professionals, we possess the knowledge, skills and resources to assist religious institutions and individuals in the development and implementation of interventions to minimize factors contributing to poverty.

Addressing poverty is part of a key initiative in APA President Rosie Phillips Davis’ presidential year. Davis has asked the APA divisions to give attention to the role of their subdiscipline in resolving deep poverty – poverty in which the household annual income falls below 50 percent of the poverty line – through changing individual attitudes and perceptions, policy and practice (you can read more about the APA initiative through the Deep Poverty webpage). Div. 36 has begun to take part in the Deep Poverty Initiative through the formation of the Task Force on Religion and Poverty (TFRP), led by co-chairs Andy Johnson (Bethel University) and Glen Milstein (City College of New York).

The TFRP held its inaugural meeting at the 2019 APA convention to establish goals for the task force over the next few years, centered on the three components of the APA deep poverty initiative: (a) change attitudes and perceptions, (b) change policy and (c) change practice. These efforts will take the form of conversation hours and symposia at future APA conventions, coordinating research efforts at the intersection of religion and poverty, creating educational and training resources for psychologists and the interested public, publishing a book on research and practice in this domain and developing a mentorship program for training the next generation of psychology professionals interested in addressing poverty in their work.

In addition to the three components of the APA initiative, the TFRP has also identified specific domains that are of concern:

  • Find ways to emphasize the self-designated responsibilities that individuals of various religious communities have in helping those in poverty. The task force is beginning to explore this through a review of major religious texts, identifying the various theologies of altruism towards disadvantaged groups.
  • Develop top-down interventions which are designed to shift the thinking and practice at the institutional level, rather than merely focusing on charitable giving on the individual level.
  • Prioritize the needs of those who are at higher risk within religious communities such as LGBTQ+ youth. At the APA 2019 convention, a member of the TFRP presented research on the role of religion in LGBTQ+ homelessness, poverty and mental health. The TFRP hopes to facilitate collaboration between Divs. 36 and 44 (Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) in this domain, as well as collaboration with other divisions as opportunities present.

Author Bio

Taylor Mefford is a second year master’s student in the mental health counseling program at Fordham University in New York, and is completing a clinical internship in the counseling center at Purchase College. His research and clinical interests lie at intersection of LGBTQ issues and religion. 


Compton, K., Snyder, J., Schrepferman, L., Bank, L., & Shortt, J. W. (2003). The contribution of parents and siblings to antisocial and depressive behavior in adolescents: A double jeopardy coercion model. Development and Psychopathology, 15, 163–182.

Dishion, T. J., & Snyder, J. J. (Eds.). (2016). The Oxford handbook of coercive relationship dynamics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ferguson, H., Bovaird, S., & Mueller, M. (2007). The impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children. Paediatrics & Child Health, 12, 701–706.

Schweiger, G. (2019). Religion and poverty. Palgrave Communications5, 6. doi:10.1057/s41599-019-0272-3

Van Ryzin, M. J., & Dishion, T. J. (2014). Adolescent deviant peer clustering as an amplifying mechanism underlying the progression from early substance use to late adolescent dependence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55, 1153–1161.

Van Ryzin, M. J., Fishbein, D., & Biglan, A. (2018). The promise of prevention science for addressing intergenerational poverty. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law24, 128