Comparing Neighbors: Social Service Provision by Religious Congregations in Ontario and the United States

Article excerpt

Introduction

Although religious congregations in the United States constitute a significant part of the nation's social safety net (Cnaan, Boddie, and Wineburg 1999), questions still remain: are religious congregations in the United States unique in their involvement in social service provision? To answer this question, we need to compare them with congregations in countries similar to the United States. Congregational social and community involvement in the United States is attributed to several factors: the unique separation of state and church, a pluralistic ethnic society, and the market economy of religion in the United States. If these factors explain the impressive involvement of local religious congregations in helping people in need and in enhancing quality of life in the community, then we should expect similar findings regarding congregations in other countries with similar characteristics.

Our country of choice to carry out such a comparison is Canada, specifically the province of Ontario. Although the provincial government of Ontario fully supports parochial Catholic schools, it does not favor any particular religious group with public support. Furthermore, unlike Europe but similar to the United States, the government provides no public support for clergy or congregations. However, unlike the United States, which does not require congregations to register or file income tax, Ontario requires congregations to register with Revenue Canada. In both countries congregations receive no support from the public sector but are eligible for certain exemptions and reductions from taxation. Furthermore, both the United States and Canada have a pluralistic society, composed of numerous ethnic, cultural, and religious groups.

In a cross-national comparison of congregational involvement in social and community services, it is important to remember that the needs of people in one country may differ from those in the other. In Canada, for example, every citizen is eligible for government health insurance whereas, in the United States, in 1997, the number of people without health insurance was 43.4 million (Carrasquillo, Himmelstein, Woolhandler, and Bor 1999). Canada, which experiences severe winter weather in all cities, provides greater public assistance in housing than the United States, a country where homeless people can drift to the sunny south. As a result, homelessness is less of a problem in Canada than it is in the United States. However, under the leadership of Brian Mulroney, who was the prime minister of Canada from 1984 to 1993, Canadian national policy began to emulate Reaganism while, more recently, Premier Mike Harris and his Conservative Party in Ontario, have moved the province rapidly into devolution and retrench ment (Ontario Social Safety Network 1996). As a result, Ontario provides fewer social services now than in 1990, and the needs of urban residents in the province are slowly becoming more like their those of their counterparts in the U.S.

It is also important to note that, in Canada, income tax and many other taxes are much higher than in the U.S. This is an important factor for two reasons: first, this leads to disposable income being lower, on average, in Canada than the U.S. and, second, people expect the government to provide more public goods and services than they do in the U.S. Canada also has one important cultural and political distinction: a strong collectivist identity and orientation. The United States is distinguished by individual rights, economic individualism, and fewer collectivist arrangements. In contrast, Canadian history and politics are replete with struggles and attempts to achieve unity by balancing competing claims of different groups such as the Francophones, the Inuit, and other indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the government in Canada is more trusted to solve social problems on behalf of residents than in the United States. However, given that Ontario in particular, and possibly Canada as a whole (excluding Quebec) , manifests many characteristics similar to those of the U. …