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Abstract

As social services become increasingly privatized amid a federal policy environment that provides a means-tested, temporary social safety net, there is potential for a larger contribution by congregations as social service providers. Using data from a nationally representative sample of religious congregations collected in 1998, 2006, and 2012, we examine whether congregations have increased service activity over time, and whether provision varies by the congregation’s community-level context. We find that post-Great Recession, congregations are more likely to engage in broad social services and in “core” services that address basic economic needs. Congregations in high-poverty neighborhoods were less likely to provide services in 1998 than congregations in low-poverty neighborhoods; after the recession, not only are significantly more congregations in high-poverty neighborhoods providing services than in 1998, they have closed the gap with congregations in low-poverty neighborhoods and are equally likely to be providing any services regardless of neighborhood poverty. Our findings highlight the importance of service measurement to determine the prevalence of congregation-level service provision and suggest that congregational service provision may be a substantial yet inadequate substitute for the public safety net.

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