Jesus is not the Answer
It’s interesting how one slip of the tongue can fuel an outsized reaction. Because many people are reading the appointments of the Trump administration to mean leadership is being selected with the implicit agreement that their role will be to either downsize or even eliminate the work of those departments (like Betsy DeVos in Education and Rick Perry in Energy), it was no surprise that Mick Mulvaney’s slip that funding for Meals on Wheels through the Community Development Block Program may not be justified sent tremors through the nonprofit world. It did not matter that he confused things by not making it clear that most of the funding for the 5,000 Meals on Wheels organizations around the country does not come through the CDBG but through another HUD agency altogether along with private donations. However, that and a very good article by Emma Green in The Atlantic titled “Can Religious Charities Take the Place of the Welfare State?” has only shifted the conversations about shrinking major government programs to a different level of anxiety.
Green’s article explores the question of whether or not religious organizations like churches and faith-based nonprofits are capable of sustaining programs that have been historically initiated and funded by government. While I agree with all of the sources quoted in the article that it would be impossible to imagine social programs currently run by State and Federal agencies being delegated to churches and nonprofits and all of their reasons for making their case, it sometimes helps me to look at a specific example in my own community. You may want to do the same with any one of hundreds of government funded programs.
I took one of the safety net programs that provide aid to individuals and families facing hardship – specifically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that replaced the Food Stamp program. With a $75 billion budget and more than 40 million people enrolled, it provides vouchers for food purchases by families living below the poverty level. What would it mean to turn that program over to churches and nonprofits funded by private foundations and individuals? In fact, what would the impact be on the community where I live – Smith County, Texas? I decided to run some numbers and see.
In a community of 216,000 people we have 29,000 individuals enrolled in the SNAP program. Currently, SNAP provides vouchers worth $3.1 million monthly to these families to make purchases at local grocers. That is more than $37 million in vouchers providing 15 million meals annually. Out of 400 local nonprofits a handful of those (and some churches) are providing groceries and meals not paid for with vouchers. However, according to the director of our local food bank, if SNAP were eliminated and those vouchers and meals were to be replaced by private charity, the numbers would be significantly increased for everyone. For instance, if each of our county’s 343 churches (it’s the South so we have more churches) were to add the expense of vouchers to their budgets they would need to raise an average additional $9,000 every month to pay for them. Organizations now providing prepared meals – like churches and shelters – would each need to multiply their meals per month five or six times to absorb the number of people they would be serving. All of this $37 million annually would have to be funded by private donors in addition to the other organizations they are currently supporting.
But it is not just the numbers. I think many people considering these changes still have an image of church and the services they provide to the poor that is shaped by what the local church used to be. They picture an urban congregation led by a kindly priest and overworked nuns taking care of the flood of immigrants and those displaced by waves of migration or economic upheavals. People found in the neighborhood churches a relief from the harsh realities of their lives and the church served as the very center of these communities – many of them created by immigrant ethnic groups like the Irish, Italian and Polish – who brought with them strong religious identities and commitment to the institution of the local church. It fed, healed, educated, taught literacy and encouraged tight networks of relationships. A church like that did, in fact, provide many of the same services for their people the government does. It’s easy to see why some think the church can do that again. But, this is a new day and the average church in America is not prepared for what it would mean to take care of the poor in the same way they might have in the past. They don’t have the competencies even if they had the capacity. As Ryan Dowd at Hesed House in Illinois said, “Churches do some programs exceptionally well. Other programs the church is not good at. To take the all or nothing approach is to miss the gifts – and limitations – of the church.”
The world has changed and there is no going back to what used to be in this country. So, unless the government mandates a change like making nonprofit status dependent on their taking on these social services, I don’t see religious charities and churches taking the place of the welfare state.