Faith, Poverty, and Place: Congregations and the Shifting Geography of Poverty in the US
*Names in bold indicate Presenter
In this paper, we explore factors associated with the social service work of religious congregations (e.g., feeding programs, homeless services, employment programs, services for immigrant, elderly and youth populations). We examine several questions: How has social service provision among congregations shifted over time and across urban, rural, and suburban geographies? Are congregations more likely to provide social services in communities experiencing significant increases in need? When accounting for congregational characteristics, is social service work related to changes in local public program caseloads or trends in local nonprofit social service provision?
Drawing on data from the 1998 and 2006 waves of the National Congregations Study (NCS), data from the 1990 and 2000 decennial census, data from the 2005-09 American Community Survey (ACS), county-level information about public program caseloads (e.g., SNAP, EITC), and county-level nonprofit social service expenditures. When using survey weights, the NCS offers a snapshot of a representative sample of religious congregations in the US.
In each wave, roughly half of all congregations reported providing social services of some kind. As might be expected, the size and staff capacity of a congregation are strongly associated with provision of social services. Provision of services does not appear systematically related to demographic characteristics of the surrounding community, although we find suburban congregations to be less likely to provide social service programs than urban or rural congregations. We also find evidence that congregations providing services on average are located in counties with greater nonprofit social service expenditures than congregations that do not provide social services.
We believe our findings will add to the scholarly understanding of the role that religious congregations play in today’s safety net and their importance to communities in need. We also hope our findings may inform efforts of federal and state faith-based initiatives intended to build stronger relationships between faith-based organizations and programs of assistance for the poor.