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Path-breaking research on the faith-based factor in Flushing’ social welfare

HINGE: For the first time in Flushing’s history, an estimate of the value of the contributions by faith-based organizations to social welfare in Flushing

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Rev. Juan Valenzuela threw open Iglesia Evangelica Presbiteriana on Bowne Street to house, feed, & train jobless, homeless, unregistered immigrants. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions


For the first time in Flushing’s history, there is an estimate of the value of the contributions by faith-based organizations  to social welfare in Flushing.

How did we achieve this breakthrough?

We took advantage of the path-breaking work on evaluating the worth of faith-based social services in cities done by a team of researchers at  University of Pennsylvania lead by Professor Ram Cnaan. In U.S. and Canadian cities, they have analyzed in detail the contributions of congregations and ministries. Cnaan got similar results in different cities in the United States for the average value of the social welfare contributions of congregations. Adjusting for inflation, the average contribution from each congregation is $268,202.


Dr. Ram A. Cnaan is a Professor and Director, Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Social Policy & Practice. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions


The mystery: why hasn’t this research been done before?

Language can be a prison-house of the mind. It was one reason that the social sciences were invented, to reveal the things about communities that had previously been concealed.

Cnaan has discovered that faith-based ministries often don’t use the language of social services but the language of living a spiritual life that places an emphasis on doing. In an interview with A Journey through NYC religions, the professor says, “Religious people often say, Oh, we don’t do social programs. Actually, they do have social programs, but don’t recognize them as such. “ The religious and the social scientists don’t speak the same language, so there is a lack of recognition of certain features that they have in common.

The social researcher compares what we found in Flushing to the women who run a food pantry in Chicago. “They didn’t see this as a social program,” he observes. They just say it is intrinsic to living their faith, so much so that it had become an ordinary, taken-for-granted part of life. It was not remarkable to them, but it was to Cnaan when he first came across this American phenomenon.

Secular social scientists  like Cnaan often have little first-hand knowledge of faith-based social services. The UPenn social scientist himself reflects that he was completely unfamiliar with the American tradition of relying on both private and government social services. He came to the United States as a secular Israeli Jew trained in the European understanding of social welfare as a state enterprise. At the University of Pennsylvania, a student introduced him to how much caring for the poor took place in churches and other ministries in Philadelphia. The revelation took place in the basement of a church where the people were packing up food bundles for the poor. He says he was very surprised, and then curious.

He wondered if anybody had ever assessed in a specific way the value of such services. To him, it seemed that this was potentially a widespread, high-value component in their communities.


Tzu Chi Buddhists in Flushing do disaster relief and refugee work.


His second shock was to find that social work departments in the United States were not interested. A national leader in social work education told him to drop the project because it would lead to professional death. This peculiar blindness to religion’s role in social welfare seemed strange to Cnaan, who hadn’t experienced the American culture wars involving faith, politics, and secularism. He decided to find out more about religion and the social work profession in the United States.


The first Buddhist scout troop was started in Flushing by the International Buddhist Progress Society.


In a comprehensive study of social work education in the United States, the professor found that social work programs rarely addressed the role of religion in communities in which they worked. In a Cnaan study published by Columbia University Press in 1999, the scholar says that he found “little or no mention of religious-based social services” in the outlines of social work courses and scholarly papers. Despite improvements in the scholarly understanding of the role of religion in urban social welfare, the blindness still exists in some quarters.

Between 2011 and 2014, when BMW Guggenheim Lab sponsored a world-wide “mobile laboratory about urban life,” there was little recognition of urban religion. Last year, the New York Times threw a big conference on “Cities for Tomorrow.” The agenda did not include anything on religion. The faith factor in the city still seems to be mostly hidden from many statistical or urban planning eyes.


Photo put up by St. Kevin Roman Catholic Church in Flushing


But Cnaan was an outsider and perhaps it was easier for him to recognize an overlooked factor in social welfare. Certainly, he was not locked into the culture wars of America. So, he decided to explore his discovery as if he was on the track of a new scientific law of city dynamics. He started with a project in Philadelphia. Eventually, the discovery of the large faith-based contributions to urban social welfare was quantified as “the Halo Effect.”

He and his students studied a sample of churches. They used a social accounting technique widely used in social work that counted the salaries, volunteer time, and estimated value of the space provided to social services. What would it cost to replace the social services that the faith-based groups were providing?

For example, a pastor may spend a couple of hours a week running the food pantry with five or six people volunteering a couple of hours each also. The cost of providing the pastor can be calculated from his or her salary, and the volunteer time was calculated at a low hourly rate. The space for housing the food pantry can be valued at local market rates per square foot per month. The measure of in-kind and direct monetary grants are also added into the total.


Next we will give greater detail on how we measured the “Halo Effect” in Flushing.

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  • Very interesting, it is important to realize that what church people do they do it out of love Just like Jesus loved the church.

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