September 3, 2021
During the 2012 presidential election, President Barack Obama’s campaign released an ill-fated slideshow, The Life of Julia, that portrayed a woman who benefited throughout her life from various government benefits. Though the advertisement was mocked and eventually removed from the campaign website, it responded to a sincere concern many have: that they will be unable to take care of themselves in a time of great need.
For most Americans, a period of unemployment is that type of crisis. The release of the most recent job numbers and unemployment statistics highlights the reality that although the outlook is improving, many are still out of work. This probably obscures the likelihood that many who are employed could use better work opportunities.
As serious as the need is, there often is help. In the spirit of Julia, imagine a composite portrait of an individual experiencing a period of unemployment.
Unemployment can be emotionally difficult, but our job seeker is surrounded by neighbors who reach out with reassurance and encouragement and even suggestions of job leads. A community charitable service provides food and other assistance when her savings are exhausted. If she needs education or training, a private school in the area offers the former and a local nonprofit the latter. She is able to meet with other job seekers to learn skills for the search and share ideas. Another charity actually facilitates the job search with online resources and networking opportunities.
The services in this hypothetical scenario are all based on real aid provided by churches and religious ministries.
A major study of the impact of religion on the economy noted: “Congregations … provide 120,000 programmes to help the unemployed.”
Supplementing the important work of government agencies, “church-run jobs programs often offer more one-on-one support to the unemployed than government employment programs and have the benefit of a real network that can extend through several parishes and numerous employers.”
Sometimes finding work requires upgrading skills, and faith-based organizations help here as well. A report from the Urban Institute studies faith-based employment assistance in a handful of large cities and described offerings like “English tutoring or other remedial education help, job search assistance, and supportive services like clothes or transportation to work.”
Practical efforts are supplemented with “emotional and spiritual affirmation.” This is a particular strength of faith-based offerings: “Unlike secular agencies, the church can help people see their true worth …, give them a new sense of purpose for their work lives, and re-energize them for the job search process.” A German study found that “religious attendance on a weekly basis can mitigate the psychological impact of unemployment.”
The scope of services provided by religious ministries is illustrated by a religious nonprofit in Florida that offers “one-on-one employment coaching and counseling, an online job board, 6 major job fairs, resume assistance, a JumpStart job skills training class series, a deep dive into workforce skills called the Central Florida Jobs Initiative (7 classes), and employment seminars in the community.”
These types of services are an expression of faith – providing another important illustration of the need to protect religious freedom. Religious expression is not only a crucial good in itself, but society also benefits when religious groups and people motivated by their faith can freely act to do good in the world.
When the heavy hand of government comes down on high-profile religious individuals or organizations for maintaining and practicing unpopular views, it discourages religions from doing things – even charitable service for the unemployed – that could raise their profile in ways that make them the next target for activists and regulators. Stifling religious freedom, in the end, does harm to everyone.
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