Faith-Based Organizations and Welfare Reform

Policy & Practice of Public Human Services, September 2001 | Go to article overview
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Faith-Based Organizations and Welfare Reform


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.

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