Questions of faith – Tackling tough issues

Don’t expect miracles from President Bush’s plan to fix U.S. communities by providing more government support for religious groups, The Economist reported in its Feb. 1 issue.

Bush’s plan would make it easier for churches, synagogues, mosques and temples to compete with nonprofits for federal dollars.

But some of the assumptions underlying Bush’s plan may not be true, the Economist said.

While America’s 300,000 congregations are engaged in a lot of social activity, for example, they may not be equipped to take on the tough jobs facing communities, the magazine said.

It cited research by Mark Chaves at the University of Arizona who found that fewer than 10 percent of congregations offer programs tackling the persistent problems of poverty, including drug abuse, poor health care, domestic violence and the lack of work training.

And those programs were concentrated in the biggest congregations: Only half the congregations of 150 or fewer members had social programs, compared with 86 percent among those with 500 or more members.

“The hard social work can be done only by big congregations – and they are already doing a lot,” the magazine said.

Again citing Chaves’ research, it said most congregations are engaged in short-term emergency programs, such as soup kitchens, not the sort of long-term personal efforts Bush expects them to do.

Citing lackluster initiatives in Mississippi and Indiana, The Economist also said that the little available evidence suggests that Bush is wrong in banking on a bottom-up process driven by congregations.

“The moral is not that congregations are not interested in getting federal dollars for social work,” the magazine said. But process is far harder than it looks.”

For full story, go to The Economist.

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