Researching Charitable Choice

When we began our study in 1999, it was a relatively obscure academic inquiry triggered by my research interest in the constitutional and policy dimensions of privatization. Then George W. Bush became President, and his Faith-Based Initiative became a centerpiece of the domestic policy agenda, and our academic study was suddenly in the cross-hairs of an acrimonious political debate.

Last week, in Washington, D.C., our project held a conference to share the results of a three-year study of Section 104 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. That study would not have been possible without receipt of an initial “seed” grant from the Center on Philanthropy. That seed money, plus small grants from the Joyce Foundation and FSSA, allowed me to get Ford Foundation funding and to put together a distinguished research team: Wolfgang Bielefeld, a Professor here at SPEA and widely recognized scholar of the voluntary and nonprofit sector; Partha Deb, Associate Professor of Economics at Hunter, and a respected econometrician; Laura Jensen, Associate Professor of Political Science from the University of Massachusetts; Edward Queen, religion scholar and currently director of the Center for Ethics at Emory…as well as several highly capable research staffers from Center on Urban Policy and the Environment. We also recruited a national Advisory Committee of distinguished scholars and practitioners who monitored our progress and gave us invaluable feedback.
When we began our study in 1999, it was a relatively obscure academic inquiry triggered by my research interest in the constitutional and policy dimensions of privatization. Then George W. Bush became President, and his Faith-Based Initiative became a centerpiece of the domestic policy agenda, and our academic study was suddenly in the cross-hairs of an acrimonious political debate.
Charitable Choice encourages agencies of government to increase their partnerships with religious organizations to deliver social services to welfare recipients, and contains provisions intended to safeguard the religious integrity of such organizations. There were three basic assumptions made by those who supported Charitable Choice: that “faith-based” organizations are more effective than their secular counterparts; that the faith community represents a reservoir of previously untapped resources (the “Armies of Compassion” to which the President frequently alludes); and that the bid process discriminated against faith-based organizations unwilling to secularize.
Our research focused on three states—Indiana, Massachusetts and North Carolina—and looked at three interrelated issues:
·       Are faith-based organizations more effective than their secular counterparts?
·       What are the organizational characteristics of religious organizations that partner with the state, and how do those characteristics affect clients and performance?
·       What are the constitutional questions raised by Charitable Choice, and how have those questions been answered, if they have?

Obviously, each of these questions requires that we ask many others. Let me just highlight a couple of the factors that have complicated both the ongoing political debate and efforts at meaningful research:
·       First, there is no agreed-upon, one-size-fits all definition of “faith-based.” Even among organizations with a definite faith component, there is enormous variation, and much of that variation is constitutionally and analytically significant.  Many of the religious providers with the longest histories of social welfare provision are “faith-based” in a very literal sense—that is, they are motivated by religious belief to provide essentially secular social services to the needy. Providers from other religious traditions approach service delivery as an opportunity for “transforming” the individuals served. Still others fall between these poles. These theological differences may also affect service delivery in ways that affect results but are difficult to assess or measure. 
·       Second, although government may pay the bills, social services in the United States are almost all delivered by a very complicated mix of for-profit, nonprofit and religious contractors, rather than by government itself. This means that any attempt to compare outcomes will necessarily compare those organizations engaged in what has been called “third party government.” That is another reason why careful distinctions must be drawn not just between for-profit and nonprofit and faith-based nonprofits, but among the many different types of organizations we might collectively categorize as “faith-based.”
·       Third, because intermediary organizations do deliver most social services, good data is extremely difficult to come by. States keep notoriously awful records, if they keep them at all, and careful evaluation of programs is rare. Many states, perhaps most, have “devolved” contracting decisions to the country level. Add to that the fact that poor people move a lot and are hard to track, that small nonprofits go out of business with some regularity, that university “human subjects” rules constrain client communications, and data collection becomes a daunting exercise.
With that background, then, let me share some of what we found:
·       In Indiana, where we did most of our empirical work, strongly faith-based providers tend to be small and are more likely to incorporate religion in service delivery. They reported more clients who participated in voluntary religious activity, and also more clients who had “issues” with religion and religious content. Strongly faith-based providers were more focused on their immediate communities, as anticipated.
·       All faith-based providers reported state oversight of fiscal and program management, but none reported oversight of religious content of their programs.
·       It was unclear whether some of the smaller FBOs would have received contracts had they not received special assistance, particularly the technical assistance offered through Indiana’s FaithWorks program.
·       Management capacity was negatively associated with  size, with faith influence, and with organizational age.
·       With respect to outcomes, I want to stress that our findings are limited to job training and placement providers, and outcomes are not generalizable to other types of social services. Within our sample, we found that FBOs and secular organizations had similar placement rates and that those they placed received a similar hourly wage. However, FBO placements were less likely to get full-time employment—that is, they got fewer hours of work per week—and significantly less likely to receive health insurance or other benefits.
·       We identified a number of areas that were constitutionally problematic. States do not monitor for constitutional violations, and they do very little to educate contractors about constitutional compliance. Leaders of congregations whom we surveyed displayed very little familiarity with the constitutional constraints that accompany public money. In some states, despite the description of Charitable Choice as an effort to “level the playing field,” small religious providers are recipients of a sort of “affirmative action,” wherein FBOs get special assistance and consideration not extended to secular nonprofits. 
·       The project has continually monitored constitutional scholarship and litigation implicating Charitable Choice. With respect to the most hotly debated constitutional issue—exemption of FBO’s from civil rights laws even when the job in question is funded by government—the project was the first to report a recent settlement of a case in Georgia, Bellmore v. Georgia Methodist Children’s Home, with implications for the resolution of that conflict. This case raised squarely the question whether religious organizations should be able to hire and fire on the basis of religious belief. As you know, religious organizations have a First Amendment right to hire and fire based on their beliefs—when the organization is using its own money. The question has been whether a congregation or other religious organization using tax dollars to pay an employee to conduct government business, may employ religious criteria when hiring for that position.  While the Supreme Court has not ruled on that precise question, most constitutional scholars who have written on the question believe that tax dollars cannot be used to fund religious discrimination. In the Bellmore settlement, lawyers for the Methodist Children’s Home and the State agreed with that constitutional analysis. The settlement agreement they crafted also recognizes the right of religious organizations to participate in government contracting, and protects their right to continue hiring on religious grounds for positions not funded with tax dollars. 
Let me just conclude this brief project overview by emphasizing that our research is the first small step on what will be a very long hike. We have provided a beginning—a benchmark—but our results are anything but the final word, and in fact, there is a whole universe of questions we did not and could not address. 
·       We studied job training & placement providers; how do our results compare to outcomes in other social service areas?
·       Do differences in theology affect willingness to partner with government? The character of the services provided? The approach to clients?
·       What dimensions of “faith” are relevant to effectiveness, if any?
·       How are states assuring constitutional compliance, if they are?
·       What happens to small faith-based contractors when government funding dries up, or funding priorities change?
Our approach to this project began with an assumption that I want to make explicit: the question is not, and never has been whether government can partner with religious organizations to provide social services. It always has, and I’m sure it always will. The issue is how. How should government structure its bid processes? How should it evaluate effectiveness? How should it assure constitutional compliance? How should it safeguard client outcomes while respecting the religious character and autonomy of faith-based contractors? How should small FBOs decide whether contracting with government is a good idea for them?
Asking “how” is less sexy and a lot harder than taking sides, but we don’t think poor people are well served by those who want to use this particular arena as a front in the culture wars. There are good partnerships and ineffective ones, constitutional partnerships and unconstitutional ones. Our goal was to help public managers and FBOs tell the difference.
Materials/films available.