President Bush's proposal for "faith-based" solutions to the nation's social problems has raised questions for many who fear the government's power and resources could be used to break down the wall separating church and state.
At the same time, however, there seems to be a consensus that faith-based organizations should play some role in caring for the poor. In a survey released by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, most Americans said they support the basic idea behind the Bush Administration's plan to give federal grants to religious social service providers but they oppose key elements of the proposal, such as which religious groups should be eligible for public funds and whether they could proselytize.
As a follow-up to the June 2001 issue of POLICY & PRACTICE, which featured a historical perspective on faith-based social services, this issue talks with Amy L. Sherman, the researcher for the first major national study of the charitable choice provisions of the 1996 welfare reform legislation.
Sherman is a senior fellow at the Welfare Policy Center of the Hudson Institute and an urban ministries advisor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is also the founder and former executive director of Charlottesville, Abundant Life Ministries, a partnership between Trinity Presbyterian Church and residents of the Blue Ridge Commons/Prospect Avenue community that offers Christ-centered programs to address the residents' spiritual, educational, and economic needs.
She is the author of three books, including Restorers of Hope: Reaching the Poor in Your community with Church-based Ministries That Work.
P&P: The faith community has been the object of intense interest, speculation, optimism, and skepticism in the welfare-to-work debate. To what do you attribute this increased interest?
Sherman: The immediate cause is the high profile President Bush has given the topic, with the establishment of the White House Office of FaithBased and Community Initiatives. The longer-term cause is welfare reform itself. With the sweeping changes that occurred in 1996, public welfare agencies found themselves with an ambitious new mission. To achieve it, these agencies knew they needed to build partnerships with organizations in various sectors of society, including businesses and the faith community. I've seen a more aggressive outreach by these agencies to the faith community.
P&P: A recent survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts showed most Americans are ambivalent about the Bush Administration's faith-based proposal. They support the idea of religious social service providers receiving federal grants, but believe the Bush proposal for faith-based social services places too little emphasis on holding religious groups accountable. Why is there such ambivalence?
Sherman: I think the enthusiasm for government-faith partnerships rests on the fact that the faith community has such a wealth of human capital. To make the shift from welfare to work, many people need significant, time-intensive, personalized assistance, as well as practical and emotional support. The faith community is a source of volunteers in the community who are willing to befriend such individuals. Caseworkers with 90 to 120 clients on their caseloads know they don't have the time to provide this kind of one-on-one friendship and involvement.
I think the skepticism about these partnerships arises from two main sources: concerns about the capacity of the faith community ("Sure, they do a good job helping a dozen families, but could they do as well with 100 families?") and concerns about the separation of church and state. There are strict separationists in our society who don't want to see religion in the public square. There are also critics who fear faith-based organizations (FBOs) will shove their religion down clients' throats. I think that is an exaggerated fear. In my study of the implementation of charitable choice in nine states, I uncovered only two complaints by clients who felt uncomfortable receiving services from an FBO. These clients, in accordance with the charitable choice guidelines, simply opted out of the program and enrolled in a secular program. The bottom line from our study was, "So far, so good." FBOs are not selling their souls in return for receiving government funds and the civil liberties of clients are being honored.
P&P: Most of us are familiar with the work of such groups as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and Lutheran Social Services. Do you think these faith-based organizations do a better job at providing social services than the government?
Sherman: I think there is a significant body of anecdotal evidence and a small but growing body of more hard-nosed social science research indicating the success of FBOs and the importance of the "faith factor." So we have to be careful about overstating the case. Nonetheless, there are unique characteristics about many faith-based social service groups, especially the more modest-sized ones, that make likely their greater effectiveness. For example, FBOs have grassroots credibility; an ability to be personalized and flexible instead of rigid and bureaucratic in their approaches; and their services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year versus Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The best FBO programs aim to get at the root causes of a person's persistent poverty and they put loving people in that person's life to help that person overcome the causes. The best FBOs also seek to help people escape their poverty, not just manage it better, and they enfold people into a loving, supportive community that legitimitizes their striving for success and gives them a social support network they might otherwise lack.
P&P: You mentioned earlier how some skeptics might question the effectiveness of FBOs working with large numbers of clients. Many FBOs are faced with the unprecedented challenge of moving welfare recipients into jobs, so the need for close collaboration between states and faith-based organizations is greater than ever. How do you think faith-based organizations are likely to respond to the increased demand for their resources?
Sherman: I have witnessed a blossoming of new faith-based services in light of welfare reform. I think many congregations, in particular, have realized their traditional, generously benevolent programs were inadequate. It's good to be able to give people clothes, food, or money as emergency relief but that doesn't help them overcome persistent poverty. So I see churches shifting into a more holistic, long-term, development-oriented benevolence such as helping people get their GEDs or providing job training and job placement services.
I think many segments of the faith community are responding to welfare reform with invigorated and expanded community outreach. Some of these new ministries, and many more veteran ministries, are becoming more open to partnering with government. Our charitable choice study uncovered 125 examples of new collaborations--some financial, some nonfinancial--between government and FBOs. Interestingly, 57 percent of the financial collaborations were with FBOs that had no previous history of receiving government funding. This seems to indicate that charitable choice has begun accomplishing its aim of providing equal access to all.
It is also true, however, that there are many disengaged, inward-looking congregations that are not very involved in ministering to the needs in their communities. There is, in other words, significant untapped potential. So although I think there are some FBOs and congregations that have seen increased demands for the services, I think these groups are interested in knowing how to secure more resources, either private or public, to expand their capacities to meet the increased demand. Many of these groups are encouraged by the charitable choice guidelines, which create a more level playing field for them, as faith-based providers, to compete for government contracts and grants to underwrite their community activities. There are also a few groups in this category that are upset with welfare reform and believe government is dumping the poor on them. The faith community is heterogeneous and there are varying Opinions.
P&P: Let's look at your statement regarding the government "dumping the poor" on FBOs. What's your response to those who say the government is dumping its problems of the welfare system on religious organizations that are not equipped to handle them?
Sherman: I don't think welfare reform is about government dumping its responsibilities. There is more government money available for child care now than ever before. In the best state programs, there are more resources for supportive services that help people get and retain jobs and provide money for transportation vouchers.
Certainly, charitable choice is not about government dumping its problems. Charitable choice says nothing about how much government should or should not spend. It just says if government decides to contract out for services, it cannot discriminate against faith-based social service providers.
P&P: You're founder of the Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries, a faith-based organization. Can you tell us about your work with the ministries?
Sherman: Abundant Life works in one neighborhood in our city. It is a low-income, predominantly African-American community of mainly single-parent families. We have a ministry center on-site from which we offer after-school tutoring, a children's Bible club, a boys' mentoring program, two basketball teams, three teen mentoring programs, and a summer youth employment program. We have done job training with adults in the past but currently aren't doing that. Instead, we are focusing on community leadership initiatives. We've been active for about five years, and some staff members have moved into the neighborhood to feel more closely connected to it.
P&P: Earlier, you wrote an article for the Heritage Foundation warning of the risks to churches receiving government funding. As a social service provider through the Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries, do you still believe there are risks?
Sherman: I think charitable choice has created a new climate in which those risks are diminished but still existent. FBOs that receive government money still have to be diligent about guarding their missions but they also have new rights and protections under charitable choice that they didn't have before. For example, FBOs now have the right to control their governing boards, to maintain a religious atmosphere in their facilities, and to select staff on the basis of religious criteria.
The purpose of charitable choice is to work in government-faith relationships in a way that does not compromise the religious character and autonomy of FBOs. So it is definitely a better environment than the pre-1996 environment when I wrote the article. Nevertheless, FBOs should be careful about getting overly dependent on government funding. They should candidly discuss with government what policies and procedures are and are not allowed in government-funded programs. FBOs that compete for government funding also have to ensure they have the administrative capacity for managing any funds they receive, i.e., they have to be able to keep good records and trace their expenditures. So I don't think collaborating with government is appropriate for every FBO, but for some.
P&P: In your work as both a faith-based social seivice provider and a policy analyst, can you tell us if there are any issues of separation of church and state that arise from partnerships between faith-based organizations and government?
Sherman: First, let me begin by saying charitable choice is an attempt to move us to a more results-oriented approach. It has made government ask not, "Who are you?" but "What can you do?" The strict separationists want to ask, "Are you pervasively sectarian? If so, you cannot receive government money." Charitable choice says, "We won't disqualify you because of your religion. We'll give you equal access to compete and, if your proposal is the best, you'll be awarded the funds to underwrite the social services for the poor we (government) are providing."
Charitable choice does include some restrictions. FBOs cannot use government funds for "sectarian instruction, worship, or proselytization." That does not mean they cannot offer program participants religious activities, such as Bible study; they just have to use their own money for the study, not government funds. FBOs cannot discriminate against beneficiaries on the basis of religion and any religious components of their programs have to be voluntary. There is the additional safeguard that government must provide a secular alternative to clients who do not want to receive services from an FBO. With those measures in place, I think the potential church-state separation problems are adequately addressed.
One of the most interesting findings from our charitable choice implementation study was that church-state questions were repeatedly reported as "non issues" by both the FBOs and public officials interviewed. Also, the Bush Administration has proposed other ways (besides fee-for-service government contracts) of helping FBOs gain increased resources, such as providing vouchers for more social services. For most people, vouchers do not raise the same constitutional concerns. As an example, a veteran can use the G.I. bill to pay for college at a religious university and people don't believe that advances or establishes religion.
Finally, we must remember that charitable choice is not about funding religion. It is about funding social services for the poor and finding the best delivery vehicles for offering those services. When FBOs make good, credible, effective service deliverers, they ought to be able to compete against secular groups for government funds to provide those services.
P&P: Let's turn to discrimination among faith-based organizations receiving federal funding. Do you think the federal government can deny funding to the Nation of Islam, for example, yet provide funding to the Southern Baptists who propose to provide the same service?
Sherman: Again, I think the issue is charitable choice asking, "What can you do?" If a non-mainstream religious group has a great proposal for doing, for example, job training, then it is theoretically possible they could win the competition and receive a government contract to do job training. Charitable choice is about making a level playing field for everyone. Government is not charged with deciding "among religions" but with deciding among competing proposals for the best plan for delivering needed services to the poor.
P&P: Across the country states are taking specific steps to change the conditions under which they purchase social services from faith-based organizations. Are faith-based social services here to stay?
Sherman: Faith-based social services have been around as long as the Republic. They are decidely here to stay. Indeed, their number is increasing. As I noted earlier, I think welfare reform has stimulated some good reflection in congregations across the country and has spurred many to increase their community ourtreach. One anecdotal indication of this is the significant growth of the Christian Community Development Association. It had 35 members 10 years ago; it has more than 400 members today.…