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The Role of Religion in Families during times of Austerity

Since the 2008 economic recession, the UK economy has adjusted through measures of austerity, including the reduction of wages, state spending and public sector jobs. Families have therefore been essential, providing emotional, financial and practical support during times of austerity. Amid times of duress, research shows, people draw on a ‘reservoir of religious resources’ within them, tapping into these when crises occur. However, there is a gap in the research as to religion’s impact on how families cope in times of austerity and how austerity shapes families’ religious engagement.

A project located in the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit (WRERU) in the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick on “The Role of Religion in Families during Times of Austerity” has sought to help close this gap in research. Funded by a small grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, the project addressed this understudied area and explored how family and religious involvement intersect to sustain individuals during times of austerity and what role social class plays in such circumstances. The research team consisted of Dr Eleanor Nesbitt (PI), Dr Sonya Sharma (Co-I, University of Kingston), and Dr Elisabeth Arweck.

The two-year study (2014–2016) focused on the experiences of Christian and Muslim families who faced or are facing difficult economic circumstances. It explored how families cope with the fallout from the economic recession in 2008 and the resulting measures of austerity, such as reduction of wages, employment opportunities, state spending, and public sector jobs. A particular interest has been the role which religion plays when times are hard.

The project design involved interviews with families with adolescent children (14–18 years old), whose members consider themselves to be practising Christians or Muslims.

The main questions of this project were:

A) what is the impact of religion on how families cope in a time of austerity?

B) How does austerity shape familiesʼ religious engagement?

C) How do families within different religious groups cope?

D) What forms does economic hardship take in families?

E) What impact (if any) do religious practices, such as charitable giving have on familiesʼ finances during times of austerity?

The data arising from this project provide important empirical information (elicited by qualitative methods) about families and individuals who have experienced or are experiencing financial hardship. The data confirm some insights found in existing literature, for example, that religion does play a role in the lives of individuals and families when they go through periods of financial hardship and that families can provide essential support, in situations of austerity, in terms of emotional, financial and practical resources.

This project also highlights issues such as the sensitivity around this topic and the effects of austerity on individuals and families, such as debt, food bank use, and food insecurity.

Further, the data point to the involvement and importance of churches/mosques and faith-based charities in the provision of support for individuals and families undergoing hardship (e.g. food banks, financial services, pastoral care, sense of community) as part of their community outreach and tangible expression of their teachings.

In this regard, the research is of particular public interest as the social significance of religion and the role of religion in the public sphere are topical issues in public debates. With the recession of 2008 still casting shadows in the current state of the economy and with austerity measures ongoing, this project contributes to our understanding of the way the economic circumstances of families intersect with their faith and religious beliefs and with the way they devise coping strategies.

As indicated, this project also contributes to the debate about the role of faith-based organisations in supporting families and individuals who may fall through the cracks of the existing welfare provision.