Charity by Religious Congregations
February 26, 2003
American religious congregations provide a significant amount of social services, although many do not realize it. University of Pennsylvania researcher Ram A. Cnaan estimated the size of charitable efforts based on a survey of 251 American congregations, and 46 in Canada. According to his estimates:
- The average congregation provides about $184,000 worth of social services, including such charitable activities as food distribution.
- Based on a conservative estimate of 300,000 religious congregations in the United States, including churches and synagogues, about $55.2 billion a year in charity is provided.
- Active religious participation runs at about half the rate in Canada as in the states, and social services by religious organizations are proportionately smaller.
Interestingly, Cnaan found no difference in the level of support to the needy provided by liberal mainline churches or conservative evangelical churches.
Proportionately, the United States has more religious congregations than any other country. In Europe, churches receive substantial funding from the state, directly or indirectly. Canada doesn't subsidize congregations either, but Catholic schools, for example, are financed by the government.
Local religious communities are particularly able to provide social services because of their proximity to needy people, the greater trust they enjoy compared to government and the flexibility of their aid. Says Cnaan: "A congregation can decide to give you one service and give me another service, and it's legal, and it's understood, and nobody can challenge it. The government has to give the same service to every citizen if the person is assumed to have the same eligibility."
Source: Angieszka Tennant, "Tallying Compassion," Christianity Today, February 2003; interview with author Ram A. Cnaan, The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare (New York University Press, 2002).
Browse more articles on Tax and Spending Issues