The Welfare Revolution
and Charitable Choice
America has recently witnessed a revolution. No weapons were fired. No blood was shed. But this revolution has already influenced the lives of citizens by the millions. And it will undoubtedly shape every major social institution well into our nation’s twenty–first century. The architects of America’s welfare revolution promised, in prophetic words first uttered by then presidential candidate Bill Clinton, to “end welfare as we know it.” And with the passage of welfare reform legislation in 1996, they delivered on this promise. It is not an overstatement to say that we have entered a new phase in our nation’s history of social welfare. Given the benefits restrictions and work–first orientation ushered in through this new legislation, America has entered the post–welfare era (Handler and White 1999; Mink 1998; Schram 2000).
Apart from its profound political significance, there is every indication that the welfare revolution will alter the landscape of American religion. Under the legal provision, charitable choice, faith–based organizations of various stripes—religious congregations, interfaith ministries, and denominational relief agencies—have been thrust into the center of America’s welfare–to–work transition and community revitalization efforts (Bartkowski and Regis 1999; Chaves 1999; Cnaan 1999; Bane, Coffin, and Thiemann 2000; DiIulio 1997; Glennon 2000; Lockhart 2001; Orr 2001; Sider and Unruh 1999, 2001; Walsh 2001; Wineburg 2001). Charitable choice makes it illegal for state governments to discriminate against social service providers whose organizations have a religious mandate. And on the heels of this policy change, several states have begun to underwrite faith–based social service programs with public funds (Griener 2000; Sherman 2000).