According to articles in the New Yorker and Business Week, churches are leading an urban renaissance. The media have celebrated the churches’ role in prompting economic development in distressed areas as well as the social services that churches offer to low-income residents. Presidential candidates are supporting measures to increase charitable giving so that churches and other nonprofit organizations can enlarge their role.
But there are serious problems with this scenario. It is true that the resurgence of the voluntary sector’s involvement has unleashed great energy and fostered some promising strategies for meeting social problems. But the prospects for sustained success are limited. We should remember that it was the limited effectiveness of church workers in the settlement house movement and other voluntary, local efforts in the 1880s that led to the large-scale government social programs of the 20th century.