Cross Purposes: Will Conservative Welfare Reform Corrupt Religious Charities?

By Sherman, Amy L. | Policy Review, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Cross Purposes: Will Conservative Welfare Reform Corrupt Religious Charities?


Sherman, Amy L., Policy Review


Welfare reform, says Governor John Engler of Michigan, is not "just about reforming a broken system, but about reforming what is broken in the human character." Engler is one of a growing number of policymakers who seek to shift responsibility for helping the poor from government bureaucracies to civil institutions-particularly religious ones--that can address the underlying moral and cultural aspects of chronic welfare dependency. Indeed, amidst the flurry of federal and state initiatives to scale back the welfare state, religious nonprofits are becoming the new provider of choice for funding and delivering social programs.

Engler has approved a multimillion-dollar contract with the Salvation Army to care for the state's homeless population. Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice has established a "Faith and Families" project in which state social-service agencies work with churches to "adopt' welfare families. The federal government provides some 350 grant programs for social-service nonprofits, many of them with religious roots. U.S. Senators John Ashcroft and Dan Coats have proposed legislation allowing individuals a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations made to charities, including religious groups, that serve the poor.

The enthusiasm for religion-based providers is well-deserved. Christian-based substance-abuse recovery programs, for example, reportedly boast a 70 to 80 percent success rate, whereas secular therapeutic programs report an average success rate of 6 to 10 percent. Research by Roger Freeman of Harvard University shows that black inner-city youth who attend church are 47 percent less likely to drop out of school, 54 percent less likely to use drugs, and 50 percent less likely to engage in criminal activities than those without religious values. Columnist William Raspberry of the Washington Post recently asserted that the most successful social programs "are those that are driven-even if only tacitl--by moral or religious values."

So it's beginning to look like the secular state wants some old-time religion. But what impact will increased state funding have on religion-based programs? Will more money allow them to help more needy people, or will it dilute-or pollute-their ability to exert the moral and spiritual influence that makes them uniquely successful?

In Michigan, where Engler has aggressively collaborated with religious nonprofits, the results are mixed. State agencies tend to treat these nonprofits not as equals, but as subcontracting functionaries doing the government's bidding. State contracts almost always come with conditions-regulations that sometimes diminish a religious group's best assets: its personal involvement, its credibility with the community, and its commitment to addressing not only physical needs but spiritual ones as well Moreover, religious nonprofits that contract with the state may, as a result, shift their purpose from the transformation of lives to the mere delivery of services. The most effective groups challenge those who embrace faith to live out its moral implications in every significant area of their lives, from breaking drug addictions and repairing family relationships to recommiting themselves to the value of honest work. But state social-service contracts aren't necessarily concerned with such outcomes; they focus on meals served, beds available, and checks cashed.

ENGLER CALLS IN THE ARMY

The aim of his welfare-reform efforts, Engler says, is to smash the entitlement mentality, promote the idea that aid entails responsibility, and empower the private sector (particularly the religious community) to deliver welfare services. To accomplish the first two goals, Michigan in 1992 began requiring recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to sign a "social contract" with the state that committed them to work, job training, or volunteer service for at least 20 hours per week. To accomplish the third goal, Engler has increased collaboration with and funding of religiously based social-service groups.

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Cross Purposes: Will Conservative Welfare Reform Corrupt Religious Charities?
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