Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: Faith, Poverty, and Place: Congregations and the Shifting Geography of Poverty in the US

Saturday, November 14, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jessica Gillooly, University of Michigan and Scott Allard, University of Washington
Dramatic increases in poverty have occurred across metropolitan and rural communities alike since 2000.  Rising poverty and persistently high poverty rates has led to historic high caseloads in many public assistance programs in the US, leading to growing concern about public safety net expenditures. Increasingly, there is debate about and legislation that will cut public assistance program spending and caseloads. Arguments for retrenchment often make the case, at least implicitly, that local nonprofit organizations and religious congregations will expand social service efforts to meet the needs of those formerly on assistance. Local safety nets in the US are where county or municipal government, secular nonprofit, faith-based nonprofit organizations, and religious congregations come together to deliver a variety of programs of assistance for the poor. Although there is evidence that local provision of antipoverty assistance is not always well-matched to need as we might expect, much of the emphasis has been on public programs or nonprofit social service organizations. The role of religious congregations in local safety nets has received less attention from poverty and safety net researchers, despite the important institutional role that congregations play in many communities.

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.