Charitable Choice

Charitable Choice was intended to encourage government contracts with “faith-based organizations” to provide social services to welfare recipients, and to remove legal obstacles discouraging participation by religious providers.

At a recent lecture by eminent sociologist Robert Wuthnow, I was introduced to the speaker by one of my colleagues, who mentioned my three-year study of the first Charitable Choice legislation — the precursor to President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative.  Wuthnow responded: "Based upon what you have learned so far, what would you tell President Bush?"

Fortunately, someone interrupted us and I didn’t have to come up with an answer.  But it seems to me that this is exactly the question any academic ought to be prepared to answer: what have you learned that should inform public policy?

The first "Charitable Choice" law was Section 104 of the massive 1996 welfare reform bill.  Section 104 was described as an effort to "level the playing field," to remove barriers faced by "faith-based organizations" competing for government contracts.  The law was based upon three assumptions: that religious organizations encounter constitutionally unnecessary barriers to their participation as contractors; that they represent previously untapped resources (the "armies of compassion" to which President Bush frequently refers); and that they are more effective than their secular counterparts.

For the past three years, I have been part of a research team investigating the validity of those assumptions, as well as other issues raised by the legislation.  Our project’s final report will not be issued until November 5th, at a conference in Washington, D.C., but we have learned a lot — not the least of which is how little we actually know about social service delivery in general, and differences between religious and secular organizations in particular. 

So, based upon what we have learned, here is how I would respond to Dr. Wuthnow (and, presumably, the President):

Define your terms.  Government has contracted with religious organizations ever since it has provided social services.  Furthermore, "faith" isn’t fungible: there are enormous variations among religious organizations.  How do the faith organizations you propose to recruit differ from Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, the Salvation Army, and government’s many other long-time religious partners?

Show me the money.  The effort to recruit new faith partners has not been accompanied by additional funding for social services.  With no new money, it is hard not to see Charitable Choice as an effort to shift funds from one set of religious providers to another — presumably, from government’s traditional religious partners (who generally operate in accordance with applicable professional norms) to providers more focused upon "personal transformation" of clients.

Recognize constitutional limitations.  The First Amendment does not prevent government from doing business with faith organizations, but that doesn’t mean that any program run by a religious provider will pass constitutional muster.  There is a constitutionally significant distinction between programs that are offered by a religious provider or in a religious setting, and programs in which religious observance or dogma are integral to service delivery.

Base public policy on evidence.  Remember the old academic adage that the plural of anecdote is not data.  Many faith-based organizations do wonderful things, but that is not evidence that religious organizations as a category are more effective than secular ones, and to date, no such evidence exists.

In order to get the right answers, ask the right questions.  The question is not, for example, whether government should partner with religious organizations to provide social services.  It always has, and undoubtedly always will.  The question is "when are such partnerships appropriate and how should they be structured and monitored?"  Similarly, the question is not whether religious or secular organizations are better, it is "what organizational characteristics are most likely to predict successful program delivery?"

If there is one truism our study has confirmed, it is that there are no easy answers.  No armies of compassion are rushing in to relieve government of its responsibilities for social welfare, and faith has not provided a short-cut to self-sufficiency.  As the head of one faith-based agency puts it, "Most poor people have all the religion in the world.  What they don’t have is job skills."