Faith-Based versus Fact-Based Social Policy: The Case of Teenage Pregnancy Prevention

Article excerpt

The Clinton administration's 1996 welfare reform legislation (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act [PRWORA], P.L. 104-193) contained a "charitable choice" clause, a provision that encourages states to increase the involvement of religious organizations in federal programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The administration of George W. Bush has intensified and extended this policy shift with a major effort to direct federal social services funding to religious institutions as part of his faith-based policy initiative (Leonard, 2003). George W. Bush will be remembered as one of the most overtly religious presidents in U.S. history. His public speeches are filled with religious references to "good and evil." It is clear that many of his policy positions, including those on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and gay marriage have been influenced significantly by his religious convictions.

The social work profession has a historical relationship with organized religion, and many religious institutions have developed excellent social services. However, politically driven, faith-based social policy threatens to further erode the quality of the U.S. social welfare system and the professional status of social work. An understanding of, and appreciation for, the historical significance of professional social work is needed, which, in turn, might produce a renewed emphasis on "fact-based" social policy development.

Let's take a brief look at the emergence of social work as an important profession in the United States (Marx, 2004). Much of the private U.S. health and human services system derived from organized religion. The Puritans in 1620 brought their version of the English poor relief system to America. The church was seen as an extended family, helping poor families by providing basic health and human services to their needy members. Over time, religion in the United States became more diverse, with numerous groups, such as the Quakers, Anglicans, Baptists, and Catholics, becoming influential. These religious groups gradually developed a sophisticated network of health and human services for their respective denominations. During the 1800s, many private nonprofit agencies were established to help people in need, organizations inspired by religious values, if not directly connected to a denomination. These voluntary efforts (including the Young Men's Christian Association in 1851; the Young Women's Christian Association in 1866; the Salvation Army in 1880) were an extension of the colonial role of the church in providing for people who were poor.

As these private nonprofit organizations proliferated, members of the business and professional classes, increasingly solicited for support, felt that the entire health and human services system needed to be more professionally operated, using the latest information from the social sciences. In so doing, these reformers began to challenge a health and human services system primarily based on religious doctrine.

Charity organization societies, stressing "scientific philanthropy," began to emerge to better coordinate and deliver services to people in need. Aiming to be more scientific, professional, and businesslike, the charity organization societies used volunteers called "friendly visitors" to do individual needs assessment, case histories, case conferences, service referrals, and community services coordination. In contrast to earlier forms of relief, the charity organization societies aimed to separate health and human services from religion. At this point in U.S. history, being simply moralistic, as the friendly visitors were, yet not requiring a religious conversion to receive aid, was another step toward professionalization.

The charity organization societies' dedication to research, documentation, and technical skills led to the conclusion that part-time volunteers were not adequately educated. …