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

Saturday, November 5, 2016
Columbia Ballroom (Washington Hilton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jessica Gillooly, University of Michigan and Scott Allard, University of Washington

Over the last decade, religious organizations have experienced growing attention from policymakers and politicians on both sides of the political aisle to diversify the social safety net in a context of rising poverty and decentralization of the welfare state (Soss et al., 2011). Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have each dedicated over $100 million to federal faith-based initiatives. An underlying assumption of these initiatives is that congregations desire to engage in social service activity and, given adequate resources, those in communities with high levels of need will respond to community demands. Aside from an ethnographic study on a small number of black churches in Boston, little empirical research has evaluated whether this premise holds and under what conditions it does or does not (McRoberts 2003).

Drawing on data from the 1998 and 2006 cross-sectional waves of the National Congregations Survey (NCS), the 1990 and 2000 decennial census, county-level public program caseloads and nonprofit social service expenditures, we ask how the level of need in the surrounding community and organizational capacity influence a congregation’s decision to engage in social service activity. We examine the conditions under which congregations engage in service work and the amount of work they do, focusing on ecological factors (e.g., racial, ethnic, and income composition of a neighborhood; public program caseloads; and nonprofit expenditures) and organizational characteristics (e.g., number of congregants and full-time staff, income, and religious tradition). Understanding the conditions under which congregations engage in social service activity is important in predicting the types of organizations that are more likely to participate in such work and the kinds of places they are located.

In each survey wave, roughly half of all congregations reported participating in social services of some kind, with most providing three services. The most common types of programs targeted homeless and hungry individuals, youth, and the elderly. Using logistic and negative binomial regression models, we find that the likelihood of engaging in, and the amount of, social service activity done by religious organizations is heavily dependent on the size of the congregation and the number of full-time paid staff, rather than the level of need in the surrounding community. Controlling for organizational capacity, we find no significant difference between congregations’ service activity in high poverty and low poverty areas. These findings challenge existing assumptions about the responsiveness of religious organizations to community need. Our work has important implications for the role of congregations in the social safety net and we hope it will inform efforts of federal and state faith-based initiatives to build stronger relationships between religious organizations and programs for the poor.