The pandemic stretched the safety net. It put a spotlight on the critical social services provided by the government and community-based organizations, including those with religious missions.
Unemployment rates spiked to historic levels as businesses shuttered to slow the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. Food insecurity rates rose and vulnerable populations, including the elderly, struggled to cover basic expenses and stay socially connected as well as healthy.
Public and private entities stepped in to help. But early in the pandemic, a survey by the Nonprofit Finance Fund showed that nonprofit leaders were worried about the long-term financial stability of their organizations.
About a year later, The Associated Press reports, “President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package is being hailed by Democrats and progressive policy advocates as a generational expansion of the social safety net, providing food and housing assistance, greater access to health care and direct aid to families in what amounts to a broad-based attack on the cycle of poverty.”
The latest edition of ReligionLink features experts who may be able to help you cover how the coronavirus outbreak continues to impact social services and the people they serve, with additional information on food insecurity and aging adults among the vulnerable.
- Read “Utah religious leaders call on governments to purchase underused hotels for the homeless” from The Salt Lake Tribune on March 12, 2021.
- Read “COVID relief bill could permanently alter social safety net” from The Associated Press on March 11, 2021.
- Read “How Neighborhood Groups Are Stepping In Where the Government Didn’t” from The New York Times on March 3, 2021.
- Read “The Pandemic Tested Our Social Safety Net. It Failed.” from The Nation on Feb. 26, 2021.
- Read “‘I Really Loved My Job’: Why the Pandemic Has Hit These Workers Harder” from The New York Times on March 5, 2021.
- Read “Despite COVID-19, economic downturns, religious charities working overseas keep the faith” by Religion News Service on Dec. 22, 2020. This piece is a part of an RNS series sponsored by the Pulitzer Center.
- Read “Can Religious Charities Take the Place of the Welfare State?” from The Atlantic on March 26, 2017.
- Read “Unemployment Rates During the COVID-19 Pandemic: In Brief” from the Congressional Research Service on Jan. 12, 2021.
- Read “Community Foundations Nationwide Launch Coronavirus Relief Efforts” from Community Foundation Public Awareness Initiative on Dec. 29, 2020.
- Read “COVID-19’s Impact on the Human & Social Services Sector” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Nov. 13, 2020.
- Read “The social safety net: The gaps that COVID-19 spotlights” from the Brookings Institution on June 23, 2020.
- Read “Essential Social Services Are Struggling to Survive the COVID-19 Crisis” from The Commonwealth Fund on June 1, 2020.
Mark A. Chaves
Mark A. Chaves is professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He is an expert on religious organizations in the United States and leads the National Congregations Study.
The Rev. Mike Kinman is the rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. The church launched Safe Haven Bridge to Housing amid the pandemic to provide a safe, temporary place to sleep.
Laurie Paarlberg is a professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Susan Scheer is the chief executive of the Institute for Career Development in Manhattan. Individuals with disabilities are among the clients the organization serves.
Bill Tibbitts is the associate director and coalition of religious communities director of Crossroads Urban Center. The nonprofit, grassroots organization assists and organizes Utahans with low incomes, those with disabilities and people of color to meet basic needs and quality of life issues.
Diane Yentel is president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Direct interview requests to the coalition’s media team.
Global pandemic causes food insecurity
Several religious traditions call on the faithful to feed the hungry, a need exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. A Feeding America report noted that food insecurity in the U.S. had been declining for years until the pandemic hit.
Feeding America, a nonprofit nationwide network of food banks, estimates that 45 million people could not access sufficient food in 2020 due to financial constraints. The report projects that number will improve slightly, but that 42 million people still could experience food insecurity this year, and it will take time for food insecurity levels to improve.
Feeding America also reports that it will take partnerships across government, the private sector and the charitable food system to turn food insecurity levels around and ultimately help address the country’s hunger problem.
- Read “Buddhist temple food pantry a lifeline for Nepalese students” from The Associated Press on Feb. 16, 2021.
- Read “Food banks sound alarm on child hunger as COVID crisis drags on” from NBC News on Dec. 27, 2020.
- Read “Covid-19 pandemic is the first time 40% of Americans have experienced food insecurity” from CNBC on Nov. 19, 2020.
- Read “Hunger Crisis: 1 in 5 Americans Turning to Food Banks” from Consumer Reports on Nov. 2, 2020.
- Read “COVID-19, food crisis give new life to ancient practice of gleaning” from Religion News Service on Oct. 23, 2020.
- Read “In Rural Nebraska, Combating Hunger From The Pandemic Is A Community Effort” from NPR on Sept. 27, 2020.
- Read “The Impact of the Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020 & 2021” from Feeding America on March 2021.
- Read “Considerations for Food Pantries and Food Distribution Sites” from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Dec. 8, 2020.
- Read “Voices of Faith: Statements from religious leaders and actors” from the Inter-religious engagement for Zero Hunger on June 13, 2016.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot is the CEO of Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, food pantries and meal programs.
The Rev. Eugene Cho is president and CEO of Bread for the World, a Christian organization that advocates for leaders to make policies that can end hunger. Contact Chris Ford for media inquiries.
Michel Desjardins researches the role food plays in people’s spiritual lives at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Luis Guardia is the president of the Food Research & Action Center. Contact Jordan Baker with media inquiries.
Craig Gundersen studies the causes and consequences of food insecurity at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He also evaluates food assistance programs.
Zahid Hussain is the director of hunger prevention for ICNA Relief. The relief organization is part of the Islamic Circle of North America.
Sister Donna Markham is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA. Contact Patricia Cole with media inquiries.
Katherine Marshall is executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue and senior fellow and visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, leading the Program on Religion and Global Development. She is an expert on international development issues and advises the World Bank, where she once worked.
Urgen Sherpa is the president of the United Sherpa Association. The organization launched a food program in April 2020 as the coronavirus spread throughout its New York City borough.
Aging adults among the vulnerable
The coronavirus hit the aging population hard. According to the CDC, older adults have an increased risk of being hospitalized or dying if they become sick from the COVID-19 virus. Long-term care facilities became hot spots early in the pandemic, and elderly people living at home also faced challenges.
With their normal operations upended, the pandemic forced organizations serving the aging population to pivot to try to slow the spread of the outbreak. A March report from the National Council on Aging states that they have risen to meet the needs of older adults, but many community-based organizations are struggling to continue to provide vital services during the pandemic.
A January survey by the National Council on Aging found the top needs of older adults to be staying socially connected, covering basic expenses, helping with transportation and technology needs as well as access to reliable information about the pandemic.
- Read “State partners with Tennessee Baptists to launch helpline for lonely, older adults” from The Tennessean on Jan. 7, 2021.
- Read “As coronavirus restrictions loosen, congregations grapple with including older adults” from Religion New Service on June 11, 2020.
- Read “Nursing Homes Run Short Of COVID-19 Protective Gear As Federal Response Falters” from NPR on June 11, 2020.
- Read “Muslim communities delivering food, medication to sick and elderly during coronavirus pandemic” from PennLive on March 28, 2020.
- Read “Pandemic forces family members into new role: Caregivers for elderly loved ones” from The Washington Post on March 23, 2020.
- Read “Older Adults at greater risk of requiring hospitalization or dying if diagnosed with COVID-19” from the CDC on March 17, 2021.
- Read “The Impact of COVID-19 on Community-Based Organizations Serving Older Adults” from the National Council on Aging on March 3, 2021.
- Read “Ways of Protecting Religious Older Adults from the Consequences of COVID-19” from The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry on July 2020.
- Read “Pandemic further isolating older adults, as senior services struggle to adapt” from UW News on Oct. 21, 2020.
- Read “A Snapshot of Area Agency on Aging Responses to COVID-19” from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
Ramsey Alwin is the president and CEO of the National Council on Aging.
Clara Berridge studies technology in elder care at the University of Washington. She was the lead author of the study “Caring for Washington’s older adults in the COVID-19 pandemic: Interviews with organization leaders about the state of social and healthcare services.”
Judy Halper is the board chair of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies and the CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis.
Ellie Hollander is the president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America. Contact Jenny Young with media inquiries.
Harold G. Koenig
Harold G. Koenig is the co-Director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. He studies the effects of religion and spirituality on health and authored “Ways of Protecting Religious Older Adults from the Consequences of COVID-19.”
Sandy Markwood is the CEO of National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. For media inquiries, contact Joellen Leavelle.
Sondra Norder is president and CEO of St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, and the vice chair of public policy for LeadingAge Wisconsin.
Dave Worland is the executive director of the Tennessee Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The office helped launch a help line to serve lonely adults in the state. Contact Eli L. Berry with media inquiries.