Charitable Choice: It's Still About Ending Discrimination

by Amy Sherman

Christianity Today, 9 June 2003

A new study claims to bring bad news for Bush's faith-based initiative. Does it? A new study issued by a team of researchers led by Sheila Kennedy at Indiana University-Purdue University (Charitable Choice: First Results from Three States) appears to offer grim news on the President's faith-based initiative. It asserts that "faith-based job training and placement services are somewhat less effective than those of secular organizations" and that "congregational leaders lack the constitutional knowledge and competence to assure constitutionally appropriate program implementation."

The study -- a preliminary report -- is based on an investigation of charitable choice implementation in three states: Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Indiana. Charitable choice refers to the new rules passed as part of the 1996 federal welfare reforms to guide government contracting with faith-based organizations (FBOs) that deliver social services. President Bush supports charitable choice, and has advocated increased collaboration between government and FBOs.

The report asserts that Bush's initiative is based on the assumption that faith-based groups outperform secular social service providers. The Washington Post journalist reporting on the study unquestioningly accepted this claim. But it's wrong. In fact, the initiative has always been about creating a level playing field by ending discrimination against FBOs. As the White House has stated repeatedly, the guiding principle behind the initiative "is that faith-based charities should be able to compete on an equal footing for public dollars to provide public services." There's no reason to expect that all faith-based programs are more effective than all secular programs. Rather, those faith-based programs that are effective (whether they be many or few) should not be excluded from government funding just because they are faith-based. It is not necessary to believe in the universal superiority of FBOs to adopt the position that discrimination against them is unjustified.

Measuring up

Still, the effectiveness of programs is an essential question. The Kennedy study examined the performance of six new faith-based providers invited into Indiana's contracting system through the FaithWorks initiative to provide employment services for clients in Lake and Marion Counties. Essentially, it found that these groups performed as well as secular contractors in terms of job placement and wage rates (clients of FBOs, though, worked fewer hours and were less likely to have health benefits). It also indicated that these FBOs: (1) had fewer years' experience operating job training programs; (2) received less money from government; and (3) had smaller budgets and fewer employees than the secular organizations. It also appears that the secular providers were more likely to be assigned clients from Marion County, which the authors admit has a greater demand for labor than Lake County. Taking all these facts together, it seems that these faith-based groups faced some additional challenges -- and yet performed almost as well. This, unfortunately, went unnoted in the Washington Post article heralding the study.

Substantial anecdotal data indicate that FBOs are effective in transforming broken lives and revitalizing distressed communities. There are also some limited empirical studies suggesting that in certain arenas, such as drug rehabilitation, FBOs may have an edge over secular programs. The largest literature review to date on effectiveness, conducted by the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, examined over 800 studies. It found that "organic religion" -- people's belief in God, attendance at worship, and devotional exercises -- is persuasively linked to positive health and social outcomes. But it also concluded that there is not yet sufficient evidence to make a case that FBOs are better (or worse) performers than secular groups in a wide variety of social service programs. As the Kennedy report itself admits, we need a lot more research on this question.

Pop quiz

Kennedy is also worried that faith-based organizations lack the "constitutional competence" for implementing government-funded programs under charitable choice. But her claim is not based on an assessment of those FBOs actually operating programs under contracts with government. Rather, she conducted a random survey of 103 congregational leaders in South Bend, Indiana, quizzing them on the ins and outs of the First Amendment. She finds the fact that most received "Ds" on this civics exam profoundly disturbing. But that lack of constitutional knowledge should not be a big surprise. And it would be a worry only if these leaders received government contracts without also receiving training in the rules.

What we should be concerned about, instead, is whether FBOs actually contracting with government know how to comply with constitutional requirements under charitable choice. And here the evidence is reassuring. John Green of the Bliss Institute, a leading researcher on questions of religion and public life, and I surveyed nearly 400 leaders of faith-based organizations holding government contracts for social service programs in 15 states. We found strong compliance. Overall, the vast majority of faith-based contractors segregated public funds from money used for inherently religious purposes. Most provided special training for staff, to help them understand what kinds of activities could and could not occur on the government's nickel. Among the most robustly faith-filled groups, 70 percent held their inherently religious activities at special times, separating them from government-funded services. Others held them at separate locations.

Our survey also found that these faith-based contractors take protecting clients' civil liberties very seriously. Approximately three-quarters indicated that they intentionally reassure clients that their participation in any inherently religious activities is voluntary and that service provision is in no way contingent on such participation. Nearly as many inform clients of their right to an alternative provider (even though technically, under most versions of charitable choice, this is the responsibility of government, not of the FBO). Apparently, most clients of faith-based programs are satisfied: overall, only nine percent of the faith-based contractors reported any clients leaving their programs to opt for an alternative, and all these said that the number of clients who had left was five or fewer.

All this evidence -- based on religious leaders actually working with government -- suggests Kennedy's worries about "constitutional competence" are misplaced. The bottom line from the frontlines is that charitable choice is working and is broadening the social safety net with new faith-based providers. That means that people in need -- who are sometimes people of faith -- have more choices. And that just makes good sense.

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