As fiscal pressures lead to cutbacks in the public sector, says Lewis M. Andrews , organized religious groups are stepping into the void:

As much as America has suffered since the start of the financial crisis in 2007, there is no doubt that for many the situation is about to get worse. The unfortunate consequence of reductions needed to balance state and local budgets, worries Orin Kramer, former chairman of New Jersey’s public pension fund, “Is that various safety nets for the most vulnerable citizens will be cut back.” If there is a silver lining, it is the opportunity to restructure many services that, while well intended, are not the most effective use of taxpayer dollars.

One interesting question that so far has received little attention is the part that organized religion may play in the coming restructuring. Down through history, many of America’s most successful welfare organizations, including the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, and hundreds of denominationally affiliated hospitals, have emerged as a religious response to social crises.

In many cities and distressed areas of older industrial states, congregations of all faiths already provide an impressive array of services, including nursing, immigrant counseling, meals for the home-bound, dental care, prison ministry, homeless shelters, HIV/AIDS treatment, and programs to combat sexual trafficking. In 2008, the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation identified 2,338 separate religious programs, which would cost nearly $100 million annually to replace, in just the Kent County region of western Michigan.

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