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US Faith-Based Organizations Increasingly Care for Poor, Elderly

David Azrak was once a highly-paid lawyer. But after a series of medical and financial setbacks, things are so bad that he cannot afford to feed himself.

Every other week, he receives free groceries at a food pantry in Cherry Hill, a suburb of Philadelphia, run by the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Southern New Jersey (JFCS). "If it wasn't for their help and their friendship and kindness to me in every way, not only financially, I couldn't make it," Azrak says.

Government cutbacks and a poor economy have led the U.S. government to rely increasingly on faith-based organizations to help care for the elderly and those dealing with economic hardship. In many areas, few if any social services are run directly by government agencies.

In southern New Jersey, JFCS provides social support for people at every stage of life -- from child adoption services to hospice care for the elderly. Its programs rely on government funding and private donations. But last year, a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its food pantries was cut in half, says Executive Director Jennifer Weiss. "We're now having to sustain more and more people at a higher level because when the grant goes away, it doesn't mean that the needs are going away," she says. Weiss says her organization provides care to 2,800 senior citizens in southern New Jersey, including social activities and home-based medical care.

She says these services save taxpayers money because they prevent the elderly from having to be institutionalized at a much higher cost to the government. "I do not want to go to a nursing home," says 95-year-old Ethel David, who drove ambulances for the Red Cross during her younger years and still drives a car. She says she only needs JFCS workers' help to fill out forms, but that "just knowing they're there without you needing them - that mental safety - is worth everything."

Ram Cnaan is a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading expert on faith-based organizations. He says they can deliver services cost-effectively because they rely heavily on volunteers and donors, in addition to government funding. "For every dollar that the government pays them, it's 30 to 40 percent less than they pay for their own services. So they basically subsidize the government," he says.

Cnaan has studied what he calls the "replacement value" of social services delivered by churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based groups to their communities. He estimates that in the Philadelphia area alone, these services are worth $500 million annually.

But Cnaan says there is no evidence that faith-based organizations are better at providing services than a government-run social safety net, adding that they have a reliability problem. "The problem with congregational social services is the congregation can decide overnight, 'We don't do it [perform a particular service] anymore. End of story.' It's not a public program that is legislated," he says.

Still, Cnaan says churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are so prevalent in America that there are more of them per square mile than any other public or commercial establishment. "To disregard them and say no no you're in the fringe, we're not interested in you, we are government, and you are religion. It's a mistake."

Cnaan says his research has also found that people are happier when they receive help from faith-based communities than than from the government. "Clients tell us, 'This is where they ask me about myself; this is where I'm being treated more holistically; this is where I feel that people are interested in who I really am,'" he says.

Back at the food pantry, David Azrak says he is more comfortable seeking assistance from an organization run by his own faith than from a government agency. "What a difference! You're not like a number. You're not like a beggar in the street. You're not like a homeless person," he says. "Here I'm treated like an equal."

And at the Jewish Family and Children's Service's food pantry, Azrak finds a can of one of his favorite foods in his grocery bag - a Jewish classic, gefilte fish.