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Religious Alternatives to the Public Sector

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

As fiscal pressures mean the public sector must contract, organized religious groups are stepping into the void.

As much as America has suffered since the start of the financial crisis in 2007, there is no doubt that for many the situation is about to get worse. The unfortunate consequence of reductions needed to balance state and local budgets, worries Orin Kramer, former chairman of New Jersey’s public pension fund, “Is that various safety nets for the most vulnerable citizens will be cut back.” If there is a silver lining, it is the opportunity to restructure many services that, while well intended, are not the most effective use of taxpayer dollars.

One interesting question that so far has received little attention is the part that organized religion may play in the coming restructuring. Down through history, many of America’s most successful welfare organizations, including the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, and hundreds of denominationally affiliated hospitals, have emerged as a religious response to social crises.

It may turn out, as Warren Bird says, that the recession becomes the 'opportunity for churches to ramp up their programs to help their neighbors.'

In many cities and distressed areas of older industrial states, congregations of all faiths already provide an impressive array of services, including nursing, immigrant counseling, meals for the home-bound, dental care, prison ministry, homeless shelters, HIV/AIDS treatment, and programs to combat sexual trafficking. In 2008, the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation identified 2,338 separate religious programs, which would cost nearly $100 million annually to replace, in just the Kent County region of western Michigan.

While church involvement is obviously a delicate issue when it comes to public policy, former President George W. Bush and President Obama have both expressed a similar belief that “faith-based” charities strengthen America’s social safety net.

Religious organizations not only have the advantage of being financially resilient relative to other institutions in troubled times, but they can increasingly draw on volunteer enthusiasm to support external programs. One area where organized religion has already stepped forward since the real estate collapse is financial planning. A recent survey of 250 large Protestant churches by the Dallas-based Leadership Network found that three-quarters of respondents now offer classes on how to handle money. In a related development, many congregations have instituted job placement programs, in part because many employers like working through religious groups. A February 2009 Lifeway Research survey of 1,000 Protestant churches across America found that 31 percent were expanding or considering programs for the unemployed. Early in 2010, the 14 million-member Church of Latter Day Saints announced a worldwide program to combat unemployment. Each congregation is expected to appoint an “employment specialist,” whose job is to build networks in every field.

Congregations of all faiths already provide an impressive array of services, including nursing, immigrant counseling, meals for the home-bound, dental care, prison ministry, homeless shelters, HIV/AIDS treatment, and programs to combat sexual trafficking.

Individual congregations have long been associated with “food pantries” that provide low-cost meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and housewares to struggling families, but this ministry has become surprisingly sophisticated in recent years. Many are now affiliated with large regional “food banks,” nonprofits that negotiate with food processors and chains like Wal-Mart to supply surplus groceries to as many as 5,000 regional outlets. Some food pantries have themselves grown into warehouse-size distribution centers. The Big Reach Center of Hope, a nonprofit ministry of Ohio’s Greenford Christian Church, is a 22,000-square-foot facility that in 2010 served 70,000 people in five counties with necessities like food and school supplies.

Other social services that have attracted support from the clergy include disaster planning, mental health, and rehabilitating public education.

“Churches were among the first responders [to Hurricane Katrina],” says Tom Sine, founder of Mustard Seed Associates, a Seattle-based group that promotes Christian social service. “They weren’t prepared, but they often did a better job than government agencies.”

Since then, according to Sine, United Methodists, Southern Baptists, and other denominations have developed elaborate response strategies. As far back as 2000, a national survey on “Faith Communities Today” conducted by the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership at Hartford Seminary showed that nearly half of America’s congregations sponsor counseling services or hotline programs, a ministry that has clearly expanded in recent years. But the fastest growing area of mission work today, according to Dr. Warren Bird, director of Research and Intellectual Capital at the Leadership Network, involves public education. Even before the federal No Child Left Behind act passed in 2001, which encouraged religious groups to provide remedial services to students in failing schools, nearly 40 percent of congregations already had after-school tutoring or homework programs.

A recent survey of 250 large Protestant churches by the Dallas-based Leadership Network found that three-quarters of respondents now offer classes on how to handle money.

Today, Bird says, churches “left and right, all over the country, are literally adopting [run-down] public schools,” rebuilding their libraries, fixing their gyms, and even putting down carpeting. He confides that some school superintendents are wary of congregational support in the beginning, but in most cases the benefits quickly outweigh any reservations.

Precisely how all these developments will play out in the context of a shrinking public sector is difficult to predict. Much depends on the balance states finally achieve between budget cuts and tax increases. Even so, three converging trends are clear. First, states are addressing their financial problems by pushing responsibility for social services down to the county and municipal level, where no money is budgeted to sustain them. California Governor Jerry Brown has already proposed a sweeping transfer to local governments of mental healthcare, juvenile offender rehabilitation, rural firefighting, urban redevelopment, and school construction.

Second, religious organizations are more comfortable than ever collaborating on missions of mutual interest. Most food banks, emergency assistance operations, and even some job networks are run in the same way as private charities, with participation across denominations.

“Congregations cooperate with each other,” Bird says. “For the same reason they have always cooperated with foundations, government, and local businesses—it’s efficient.”

Finally, churches have made great strides in using technology. This was the biggest change in American congregations between 1998 and 2007, according to the National Congregations Study at Duke University. Taken together, these trends suggest the evolution of increasingly efficient social service networks at the local level, structured like secular nonprofits to minimize church-state issues, but managed—and inspired—by the collective good intentions of neighboring congregations.

It may turn out, as Bird says, that the recession becomes the “opportunity for churches to ramp up their programs to help their neighbors.”

Lewis Andrews is a senior policy analyst at the Yankee Institute in Hartford, Connecticut.

FURTHER READING: Nicholas Eberstadt examines "A Poverty of Statistics," Joel Kotkin chronicles "Urban Plight: Vanishing Upward Mobility," and Jay Richards discusses "The Immateriality of Wealth." Martin Feldstein explains "How to Cut the Deficit without Raising Taxes," Michael Barone considers "Ways to Come to Grips with America's Fiscal Mess," and Kevin Hassett and Aparna Mathur explore "Simplifying Tax Credits for Low-Income People."

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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