September 16, 2006

Malls vs. Churches

They certainly don't reach the most surprising conclusions the world has ever seen, but Jonathan Gruber and Daniel Hungerman have an interesting paper on "blue laws"—laws that states historically enacted to limit commercial activity on Sunday, in order to get everyone to go to church. The authors find that once states began repealing their blue laws, after the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1961, people started going to church far less frequently. That seems commonsensical—when there are other things to do on Sunday, church sounds less appealing—but now there's data too, so that's fun.

The authors also discover that drinking and drug use starts to increase among the people who stop attending church after the blue laws are appealed. In the past, Gruber has done a bunch of work showing a strong correlation between church participation and a bunch of positive outcomes, such as improved health and lower criminal activity so this sort of jibes with that. Sitting in a pew, praying, and belting out the odd hymn, it seems, makes you an upstanding citizen.

Or does it? I'd like to get a fuller picture of what's going on here. What is it about churches that lead to such positive outcomes? After all, as I've noted before, research shows that churches actually provide a fair amount of income insurance for their members. If times are tough—if you lose your job, say, or your child contracts some horrible illness—people in the congregation will pass the hat around and help you out. Research shows that this actually happens frequently, and the effect is quite significant. Surely that would explain some of these positive outcomes, no?

Anyway, the Gruber-Hungerman paper discusses competition between secular businesses and churches. There's also a question of how churches compete with public services. I've always assumed that in many parts of the country, people join big megachurches, say, because they often provide certain valuable services—like child care and support networks. This, in turn, can make churchgoers less supportive of the welfare state, since they already receive many services through the church. And if people are all voting to hack up the welfare state, then more and more people, in turn, become reliant on church. It's a vicious—or virtuous—cycle. But does what I just described actually happen? It' would make for a fascinating study, I think.
-- Brad Plumer 4:40 PM || ||