Faith-based initiatives: Do they really work?

The Baltimore Sun

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama says he plans to carry on the spirit, if not the details, of President Bush's faith-based initiative. Now, he may truly believe in the transformative power of these "charitable choice" initiatives - or he shrewdly may be trying to convert evangelical voters to the Democratic Party. Or both. Regardless, he should recognize that religious congregations have proved to be no substitute for trained professionals working on our most pressing social problems.

During his administration, Mr. Bush welcomed religious organizations into the government contracting fold. According to the White House, religious organizations now receive about 11 percent of all federal social services funding, which amounts to over $2 billion a year.

Mr. Bush sought to remedy an "unlevel playing field" that allegedly excluded religious organizations from government contracting. Yet for decades before charitable choice, religious affiliates such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services received millions of dollars in federal financial support to fund secular programs motivated by a spiritual calling.

Mr. Bush and this year's leading presidential candidates fail to recognize the distinct benefits when religious organizations create secular, tax-exempt affiliates as a condition of government contracting. For starters, the recipients of social services face less risk of religious coercion when they receive services in a secular atmosphere. Further, government does not have to monitor secular affiliates for constitutional compliance, and thus avoids entangling itself in church affairs.

In addition, these secular affiliates are generally barred from discrimination in hiring on the basis of religion. By contrast, co-religionist discrimination is currently permitted under charitable choice - and is the reason that Mr. Bush could not persuade Congress to enact his initiative into law. Senator Obama has wisely announced that he would forbid hiring discrimination for any grantees that receive federal funds. After all, applying for federal grants is a choice.

Mr. Obama is also correct that government has overlooked the social capital available via smaller congregations. Likely as a result of his work as a community organizer, he recognizes that in economically depressed areas, churches, synagogues and mosques play a stabilizing role and have the moral authority within their communities.

Nonetheless, Mr. Obama seems to overestimate the capacity of these groups to manage large government contracts and to deliver results in social programs such as job training and addiction treatment that require personal transformation from recipients -- if not Ph.D.s from providers.

Most congregations are focused on a religious mission and lack the accouterments of professional management, such as staffing and office technology. Professor Mark Chaves of Duke University examined data from the National Congregations Study and concluded that while most congregations engage in social service activities, these programs are a peripheral part of congregational life.

He found that most charitable efforts are spearheaded by a tiny, dedicated core of volunteers and are focused on assisting with the emergency needs of the poor for food, clothing and shelter. These volunteers do not deliver charity in a particularly holistic way, and they do not engage in long-term contact with the needy. The advent of charitable choice has not changed these patterns.

The next president should focus realistically on the unique capacities of small congregations. (Sen. John McCain has said he would maintain the status quo.) Congregations have committed volunteers, connections to other social service organizations, support networks for members and the ability and desire to meet discrete, immediate needs in their communities.

But these congregations are no substitute for long-standing governmental and nonprofit welfare programs. In each of his annual budgets, Mr. Bush has proposed massive cuts to social service programs, despite his rhetoric of "compassionate conservatism."

Mr. Obama, who promises to reverse these shrinking budgets, says his administration would focus on providing technical support to smaller faith-based organizations. Yet in a limited pool of funds, providing churches with the training needed to run complex programs inevitably takes away resources that could otherwise directly benefit the needy. It also threatens to divert these churches from their primary missions and to entangle them in bureaucratic red tape. Are we really going to train parishioners to do social work?

Instead of trying to change the character of congregations, government could better spend its money by collaborating with congregations to formalize networks between faith groups and secular providers so that they are aware of each other's needs and capacities.

Moreover, government could also benefit from the community knowledge within congregations by involving them in welfare planning and evaluation.

Finally, government could support congregations in the work they already perform to meet discrete, immediate needs within their communities.

These are realistic, achievable and affordable strategies for partnering with congregations.

Prayer alone is not enough for meeting human needs, and faith cannot substitute for lost dollars.

Michele Gilman is an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she directs the Civil Advocacy Clinic. Her e-mail is

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