The myth of a faith-based social safety net

Whenever Congress and the White House cut support for poverty programs, ideologues on the right assert that churches can and should fill the void–that faith-based, private charity is morally superior to government assistance, not to mention more effective. Expect to hear that argument advanced by proponents of the mean-spirited, budget deal that Republicans and Democrats struck this weekend to avert a government shutdown.

There is one simple problem with this argument: there is no evidence that it is true. In a recent post on the faith-based initiatives of the Bush and Obama administrations, Mark Silk demonstrates that congregations “have proven to have only limited capacity to offer the kinds of spiritual outreach and social services” that would transform poor communities. Silk points for a recent study by Mark Chaves, a sociologist at Duke University and Bob Wineburg at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. They concluded:

National and local studies make clear that congregations occupy an important but limited place in community social welfare systems. These studies also make clear that, far from constituting an alternative to that system, congregations’ social service activity depends on it. The faith-based initiative, which attempted to bypass already existing organizational networks and systems of support in favor of resourcing one small part of those systems, failed to increase congregations’ role in those networks and systems in part because the initiative was built on false assumptions about congregations’ place in them.

Few religious communities have the resources to patch the holes that our timid, hard-hearted political leaders keep cutting in the social safety net.

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