Talking Past Each Other
AFTER NEARLY FOUR YEARS OF RESEARCH AND STUDY, WHAT CAN WE FI NALLY SAY about Charitable Choice legislation and the president’s Faith-Based Initiative? Have these programs and approaches been successful? Are faith-based efforts to alleviate poverty more or less effective than secular ones? Are armies of compassion helping more poor people achieve self-sufficiency? Or is the emphasis on faith-based contracting diverting necessary resources from direct services and eroding constitutional boundaries?
Can we even agree on what “success,” “effectiveness,” and “help” (let alone “faith”) mean? And—perhaps more fundamentally—is the highly polarized discourse and conceptual incoherence that characterize this particular policy arena simply another example of the partisan nature of policymaking in the United States—a re- minder of the truth of the old admonition not to look too closely at the process of making either sausages or laws—or is this debate a “special case,” and if so, why? Our research suggests a number of answers to those questions, some prosaic, others that implicate very different conceptions of what it means to be an American. We turn first to the prosaic.
If a community development organization proposed building ten units of affordable rental housing, we would measure its success by counting the completed housing units and comparing the rents with what is considered affordable in the relevant market. We might also examine the quality of construction, the competence of prop- erty management (evaluated by service norms in the industry),