Faith-Based Upswing

by Amy Sherman

American Outlook, Spring 2002

President George W. Bush’s recent appointment of Jim Towey to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives should breathe some new life into the president’s initiative, which encourages religious groups to get involved in solving problems in their communities. But at the same time, the initiative has been linked to the volunteerism push of the newly created Freedom Corps, and the administration has abandoned efforts to expand Charitable Choice guidelines that protect the religious character of faith-based organizations (FBOs) that participate in federal social welfare programs. Supporters of the faith-based initiative recognize the need for some adjustments to political realities, yet fear that the White House may be compromising too much. Critics gloat that the initiative is dead. An examination of activity outside the Washington Beltway, however, reveals that the initiative is alive and well—due in large measure to Bush’s vigorous championing of FBOs over the past few years.

Our new report tracking Charitable Choice implementation in fifteen states (representing geographic and population diversity) shows that government-faith collaboration is growing rapidly. The study documents examples of government contracting with FBOs under the four federal programs regulated by Charitable Choice: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Welfare to Work, the Community Services Block Grant, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Our research team uncovered more than 700 new or recent contracts involving 587 FBOs. States are continuing the trend that began a few years ago, after public officials recognized Charitable Choice’s prospects for facilitating increased partnership between state and local welfare agencies and nontraditional FBOs (those without a previous history of government collaboration.) We first surveyed nine of the fifteen states two years ago. Since that time, all but one have significantly increased their contracting with FBOs. In Wisconsin, for example, FBO contracting has multiplied tenfold. California’s number of contracts jumped from 11 to 96, and Michigan’s from 9 to 129. Our preliminary analysis indicates that slightly over half the contracts we uncovered are with “new players.”

Not only are states partnering more often with FBOs, they are also purchasing a broader array of services from them. We found over forty different kinds of programs, including job training, summer camps for at-risk youth, domestic-violence intervention, fatherhood initiatives, literacy classes, and care for the homeless. That compares to only eight categories of service found in the previous study.

Local governments, in fact, are increasingly looking to congregations for help in dealing with particularly thorny welfare cases. In New York City and Syracuse, New York, for example, churches are assessing why some recipients of aid refuse to work, as required, and are helping these individuals to overcome their barriers, secure employment, and lift the sanctions imposed on them by the state for not working. This activity parallels that being done in California and Ohio, where churches are being asked to find needy people who have fallen through the cracks. These states recognize that church leaders in distressed neighborhoods know where to find hurting people and how to win their trust.

Moreover, many FBOs are providing aid to people not eligible for government welfare programs. These individuals—boyfriends with criminal records, for example—can drag down welfare-to-work aspirants by draining their emotional and financial resources. As the faith community serves those outside the system, many inside it benefit. The result: more successful welfare exits and increased taxpayer savings.

Though growing, the total amount of government contracting with FBOs under Charitable Choice remains modest. But the broader ripple effects of Bush’s “pro-faith” bully pulpit (as governor, presidential candidate, and president) must be considered in a fair evaluation of the faith-based initiative’s impact. In the last two years, several states and localities have launched their own faith-based initiatives. California’s governor has poured $50 million into FBOs to provide job training for some of the state’s hardest-to-serve populations (and just announced new grants totaling over $7 million, on April 4). Florida’s legislature is earmarking 15 percent of the state’s Workforce Investment Act youth funds for FBOs and investing $5 million in faith-based rehabilitation programs in state prisons. Michigan’s $5 million “IDA Partnership” is working with faith-based credit unions to run personal savings programs (“Individual Development Accounts”) for the poor. Sixteen states and more than one hundred cities have announced or established their own offices of faith-based and community initiatives to foster increased collaboration in serving disadvantaged families.

Perhaps all this would have occurred without Charitable Choice and Bush’s advocacy, but it is unlikely. Though its accomplishments thus far in Washington have been modest, the faith-based initiative is making strong headway where it counts most: on the streets of America. Today’s greater diversity of service providers and programs means better coverage and more choices for our low-income neighbors.

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