A Survey of Church-Government Anti-poverty Partnerships

by Amy Sherman

The American Enterprise, June 2000

The Charitable Choice provisions of our 1996 welfare reform, as earlier articles in this series point out, allow bold new collaborations between churches and government in serving the poor. The Charitable Choice law prohibits public officials from discriminating against religious social service providers who compete for government contracts. It protects the religious integrity and character of faith-based organizations that accept government dollars by granting them important rights: to retain authority over their mission and governing board; to maintain a religious atmosphere in their facilities; and to seek staff who agree with their religious beliefs.

Simultaneously, Charitable Choice protects the civil liberties of clients receiving services. Constitutionally, religious organizations must not use government funds for purposes of “sectarian worship, instruction, or proselytization,” and they must not discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of religion, or require them to participate in religious practices. In addition, if a client objects to receiving social services from a faith-based provider, the government must ensure, under Charitable Choice, that he or she obtains services from another organization.

On the books now for three years, Charitable Choice has produced a notable, albeit modest, number of new financial relationships between religious social service providers and government. My recent survey of nine states (CA, IL, MA, MI, MS, NY, TX, VA, WI), published by the Center for Public Justice, identified 84 new partnerships focused on moving welfare recipients into jobs. Three-quarters of these contracts involved a direct financial relationship between a government entity (for example, the state or county department of human services) and a religious organization or church. The other quarter involved indirect funding mechanisms (that is, a government contracted with a large non-profit, such as Goodwill Industries, and Goodwill used some of these funds to subcontract for specified services with a religious group). Just under half of these contracts were for less than $25,000. But 18 percent involved amounts exceeding $100,000 and 7 percent, amounts over $500,000.

Eighty-four new Charitable Choice partnerships may not sound like much, but they are significant for at least two reasons. First, these initiatives involve hundreds of churches and engage the lives of thousands of welfare recipients. Second, over half of these financial relationships involve churches and religious bodies that had not previously cooperated formally with government—including some evangelical Protestant organizations historically worried that government collaboration would squelch their religious identity. The upshot is that welfare recipients in some localities now have a more diverse array of service providers to choose from. Through these 84 initiatives, men and women are getting publicly funded, explicitly faith-based mentoring, job training, transportation, and drug rehabilitation.

Some critics of Charitable Choice worry that low-income clients will be bullied by evangelists operating welfare services underwritten with taxpayer funds. Such fears have little basis in fact. Out of the thousands of clients participating in the initiatives I studied, I heard only two complaints. In both cases, the clients felt that they had been subtly pressured to attend church; in both cases (following Charitable Choice’s guidelines), they quit the faith-based program and joined a secular alternative.

And on the other side of the table, religious groups receiving government money under Charitable Choice have also registered few complaints. A few voiced some uncertainty as to “how far they could go” in integrating spiritual ministry into their social service programs. But the vast majority reported that the church-state question was a “non-issue.” They said they enjoyed the trust of their government partners and that they had been straightforward about their religious identity. Since clients’ participation in their programs was voluntary, these FBOs felt free to “be religious” since clients were free not to participate.

So far, then, Charitable Choice is accomplishing its aims without notable problems. Religious groups accepting government funding are not having to sell their souls, and clients’ civil liberties are being respected.

This happy result appears to be happening both as a consequence of Charitable Choice, and in spite of it. Charitable Choice’s most important effect thus far is that it has made church-state collaboration plausible for Americans who had previously assumed, under a misguided interpretation of the First Amendment, that such partnering was somehow unconstitutional. Given the green light of Washington’s blessing on such relationships, government officials have felt comfortable reaching out to religious groups, looking to them for help in achieving welfare reform’s mandate of moving welfare recipients to independence.

But many government officials and religious people remain utterly ignorant of the opportunities the Charitable Choice law has provided. Almost nowhere are government officials incorporating detailed Charitable Choice language into the contracts they write with their new, religious partners. (Wisconsin and Texas are exceptions among the nine states I studied.) Government officials also have been slow to redesign the process of establishing social service contracts to accord with the letter and spirit of Charitable Choice.

Since Charitable Choice seeks to create a level playing field on which both religious and secular social service organizations can compete for government contracts, public officials need to formally amend (or eliminate) procedures that effectively shut out faith-based organizations. For example, many government departments issue “Requests for Proposals” (RFPs) to social service organizations that seek government funding. But current mailing lists for the RFPs rarely include religious organizations, since historically they have not been “in the loop.” This needs to be fixed.

Another example: many government departments have standard “boilerplate” language used in contracts with social service organizations which often includes statements prohibiting the contractor from any form of discrimination in hiring. Officials should strike such provisions from contracts with churches, since, under Charitable Choice, these groups may select employees on the basis of religion.

In sync with the spirit of Charitable Choice, officials ought to modify the entire contracting process to make it more friendly to effective but small religious groups with no experience in collaborating with government. Bureaucrats could provide more training to faith groups on how to write a proper proposal. The scale of contracts may also need to be adjusted. Government departments used to drawing up contracts for $50,000 or more should inaugurate grant streams involving fewer dollars. Small community-based religious organizations are more likely to have the organizational capacity to administer a $15,000 contract than a $150,000 one.

The government and faith community collaborations that Charitable Choice has encouraged have already produced important benefits. New financial relationships have begun, but also new non-financial forms of collaboration. The traditional social services network is being broadened and energized through the inclusion of new helpers.

And these fresh troops are doing many new things. Many congregations have started providing social services that even they had not previously attempted. Specifically, many have moved from “commodity-based benevolence” (operating food pantries and used clothing centers) to “relational” ministry—working intensively with needy families, face-to-face, for months. While our survey uncovered collaborations on a wide variety of social services like child care, transportation, drug rehabilitation, homeless services, English courses, and parenting classes, the most common initiatives were mentoring and job training programs that involved extensive personal contact between poor individuals and their religious helpers. This is the most important “added value” that religious organizations bring to poverty relief.

Moving welfare recipients to independence requires intensive labor. Most of the women making the transition need individualized emotional and practical support, something government caseworkers rarely provide. Caring volunteers from faith-based organizations, on the other hand, can and do provide tremendous personal assistance, encouragement, and accountability to poor families moving off the dole. Some religious groups are even well-positioned to handle “hard-to-serve” clients who require specialized attention, tough love, hope, and spiritual motivation if they are to successfully change their lives.

In addition to the procedural changes outlined earlier, the government will need to take one other action to gain maximum benefit from Charitable Choice: It must interpret the law’s prohibition against using government funds for inherently religious activity in a narrow way. Religious groups must be able to refer to biblical principles in their job-readiness classes, to pray with program participants who desire it, to keep their religious character while offering assistance. If government officials go overboard with sweeping prohibitions and force church groups to put their faith on the shelf while serving the poor who also have faith, then the robustly religious faith-based organizations that so often achieve the best results for struggling families will be pushed out of the picture, and Charitable Choice will fail. And that would be a terrible shame.

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