The role of religion in social welfare provision and policy: congregations in a U.S. city
Garlington, Sarah Bruff
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A complex mix of community and government activities and policies address social welfare needs, and the balance of roles varies from country to country and sometimes community to community. Economic changes and other factors have led to the development of comprehensive welfare states in many countries, making national/federal governments significant players in social welfare planning and provision. Even with these structural changes, communities are still active in assessing and providing for their own members' needs, though in widely variable forms. Religious organizations are key players in providing for community social welfare needs, both congregations and faith-based organizations, as well as contributing to the national level policy discourse. To understand the role of congregations in social welfare provision, this project presents a case study of congregations in a small U.S. city (using qualitative interviews and other contextual data), a review of federal faith-based social welfare policy (from three administrations), and a discussion of the U.S. case in comparison to similarly constructed European case studies. The federal policy documents reflect an emphasis on communities as best placed to serve their own needs. The community interview data yielded themes focused on collaboration and structural ways congregations contributed to social welfare. Respondents generally voiced a similar position that community organizations have intimate knowledge of the community's needs and how to meet these. However, respondents (with a few exceptions) saw the work of community organizations as only possible within a larger government structure of regulation and funding. The constraints of program and funding guidelines that created a need for congregations to fill gaps, discussed by respondents, refers to the complex system of benefits designed to identify the deserving portion of those in need. The results of this project fit in a larger, international comparative analysis of social welfare and religion in western liberal democracies. Examining religion's participation in social welfare provision contributes to the understanding of religion's role in the public sphere as possible moral commentator, contributor to the common good, and identity legitimation.