Politics

Relying on Faith

When it comes to delivering social services, church-state cooperation is rife with possibility--and controversy.
by | August 2004

In 1983, W. Wilson Goode Sr. was elected as Philadelphia's first black mayor. For two terms, he dealt with the acute social problems of America's fifth-largest city. Like most urban mayors, he worked frequently with the city's faith community, approving about $40 million annually in contracts to religious groups to provide services from AIDS prevention to housing development.

After leaving office, Goode served as an education offical in the Clinton administration and also pursued a new calling: He enrolled in a Baptist seminary and earned his Doctorate of Ministry. Preaching did not preempt Goode's longstanding interest in social services. During theology school, much of his focus was on how churches could be transformed from "clubhouses" that care primarily for their members into "lighthouses" for local neighborhoods.

So in 2000, when Goode was approached about leading a mentoring program for the children of prison inmates, he readily agreed. Roughly 20,000 kids in Philadelphia have a parent in prison or on probation or parole. In all likelihood, a majority of those children are headed for an encounter with the criminal justice system themselves. "If you target properly, you can significantly reduce the recidivism rate of these children and therefore decrease police costs and the cost of incarceration," says Goode. With assistance from the city's prison system and welfare-to-work funds, the Amachi program already has paired more than 700 children with mentors.

UNTAPPED RESOURCE

Amachi (a West African word that means "who knows what God has brought us through this child") is just one example of the widespread involvement of religious groups in Philadelphia's secular affairs. While the City of Brotherly Love is at the forefront in forging such partnerships, state and municipal governments around the country increasingly are reaching out to local congregations and faith-based charities. More than a hundred cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Jacksonville, Miami and Minneapolis, have appointed formal liaisons to their local faith communities. Others, such as Indianapolis, Charlotte and Tampa have explored ways to rely more on religious organizations to deliver social services. And elected officials in California, Florida, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas have made a major effort to push these developments along, revising statutes and regulations to make it easier for congregations and religious charities to receive government grants to provide social services.

As significant as these activities have been, some social scientists and politicians, including President George W. Bush, argue that cities and states should be doing even more in this arena. Religious institutions, they claim, represent a tremendous untapped resource--a unique way to transform the lives of a hard-up, low-income population that government has a hard time reaching.

But where advocates of greater outreach to faith-based organizations see an army of saints waiting to be called to service, skeptics see junk science, false hopes and political intrigue. "The social reengineers in the Bush White House...see adding 600,000 churches to the other 300,000 nonprofits as a way of getting government out of social services," says Robert Wineburg, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. "They don't understand community processes; they tried to bully governors into creating faith liaisons when it's much more complicated than that."

For state and local officials, these dichotomous views raise fundamental questions: Do partnerships with local congregations and religious charities represent an important new tool for state and local governments, or are successes such as the Amachi program more a testament to the vision and determination of a unique individual? And when it comes to the toughest social problems, can God succeed where government has failed?

REVISING THE RULES

The practice of the public sector partnering with religious groups is nothing new. In the years following the Civil War, state governments relied on them to deliver services to widows, orphans and wounded war veterans. In 1902, New York City contracted with an evangelical religious denomination organized, oddly, along military lines to provide emergency food services--the Salvation Army. Religious groups such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services, the Salvation Army and United Jewish Communities have a long record of working with state and local governments to provide social services. Indeed, those four groups alone receive about $4 billion a year in state and local government funds.

Since religious charities already receive significant amounts of public money, some experts scratch their heads at calls for new efforts to reach out to religious groups. "There is nothing new about religious organizations, even churches, congregations, being able to compete--and compete successfully--for public resources," says Mark Chaves, a sociologist at the University of Arizona. "The churches that are serious about this have been getting public support for a long time."

Others beg to differ. Proponents of greater governmental engagement with religious service providers argue that conservative evangelical churches have been ignored--even discriminated against--when it comes to the provision of social services. In particular, they object to rules that prohibit contractors from making hiring decisions based on religious beliefs. Conservatives claim that such requirements are tantamount to forcing religious organizations to behave like secular ones--something many evangelicals have been unwilling to do. In the past, that meant opting out of government-funded social service grants.

During the early 1990s, however, evangelical policy makers began championing a variety of legislative and regulatory reforms. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform legislation that included a "Charitable Choice" component, which allowed religious groups that discriminated in their hiring to receive federal grants. Since then, the Bush administration has pushed federal agencies to make a special effort to consider religious charities in their grant-making and encouraged state and local governments to provide technical assistance to charities that have not previously participated in the grant process. Despite bipartisan congressional support, it's been a contentious process, characterized by legal threats, arguments about what is or is not constitutional, and odd reversals of logic (with conservatives calling for more aggressive outreach to make up for decades of "discrimination" and liberals warning against "preferences" and a de facto quota system).

GOD ON THE GROUND

Churches and, to a lesser extent, synagogues, mosques and temples are an integral part of the American landscape. Yet most state and local officials know very little about the capacities--or composition--of local faith communities. Most states don't even bother to ascertain whether contractees are faith-based or not.

The exception is Philadelphia. There, a group of academics at the University of Pennsylvania's Program for the Study of Organized Religion identified and queried more than a thousand of the city's 2,100 congregations about their activities. According to Ram Cnaan, a professor who led the effort, the census uncovered a sub rosa social safety net that church members and non-members alike turned to first in times of crisis. Cnaan found that congregations provide roughly $250 million a year in essential services to city residents. "Without congregations," says Cnaan, "Philadelphia would go socially, if not financially, bankrupt."

But if congregations and religious charities are already playing such an important--albeit informal--role, is it realistic to expect them to do more? Cnaan says the answer is yes. When Philadelphia researchers explained the charitable choice program and asked pastors if they were interested in bidding on service grants, 60 percent responded affirmatively. Among those most enthusiastic about contracting with government to provide social services were African-American churches. That's true elsewhere as well. One nationwide survey found that black churches were twice as interested in receiving government funds to provide social services as white churches (60 percent versus 30 percent).

Faith-based boosters insist that congregations and religious charities aren't the only beneficiaries of their greater involvement in social services. For one thing, they say, more competition for government contracts would lead to better deals for governments. Even more important, however, is the hope that they can make headway against the kinds of intractable social problems--drug addiction, prisoner recidivism and intergenerational poverty--that stump secular programs.

So far, however, there's not much evidence to support this supposition. "There are starting to be studies on this, and a fair way to characterize the research emerging is it's very complex," says sociologist Mark Chaves. "It's not possible to conclude that religious organizations are better than secular organizations. It's also not possible to say they are worse. What seems to be developing is that there might be advantages in certain specific areas of social services and there might be other areas where they do less well." Nursing homes and elder care seem to be a strength; child care, a weakness.

Some experts also are skeptical of the claim that congregations are underutilized resources for local governments. "If you ask what percentage of congregations do something someone might call social services, the answer is a lot," says Chaves. "If you ask what percentage of congregations do serious kinds of social service--where they actually have staff, devote significant resources to it, run programs--the answer is a tiny percentage." Chaves notes that only 6 percent of the nation's roughly 350,000 congregations have a staff person who spends at least half of his time on social services.

"If you look at the social welfare arena and you look at the services currently being provided under contract, most of these services tend to be fairly intensive services to fairly disadvantaged populations," says Steven Rathgeb Smith, a public policy professor at the University of Washington. "Many of those types of services aren't easily transferred to small community groups or congregations."

OFFICIAL RELIGIOUS COUNCILS

Despite academic doubters, a number of elected officials have made outreach to their local faith communities a major component of their agendas.

Miami is among the cities moving most aggressively to energize and understand its faith communities, thanks largely to the effort of Mayor Manuel Diaz. When Diaz first ran for office in 2000, he promised to create an advisory council of local religious figures. That's hardly unusual. Miami, however, also has followed up with a sustained effort to identify religious groups, encourage them to communicate more with elected officials--and go after grants. In addition, the city is organizing congregational councils for each of its 13 distinct neighborhoods. Those councils will then organize a citywide council of religious leaders, which will serve as the official faith-based voice for the city.

Other cities are now following Miami's example. Baltimore, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Jacksonville also have sought to form working groups with prominent clergy members. If these efforts succeed and "official" religious councils become important, it will represent something new--government-organized religious representation. They also seem likely to raise thorny questions. Who will choose council members? Does each congregation get a vote, or does each congregant vote? While the answers to these questions are still unclear, it is clear who will decide them--government. That makes some religious leaders uneasy.

Dr. Forrest Harris, president of the National Baptist College in Nashville, thinks a completely cooperative relationship between local government and the local faith community is not desirable. While black churches have a long history of providing social services, they also have a prophetic tradition that emphasizes fighting for justice and challenging the status quo. "There's got to be tension," says Harris.

That's not to say he opposes a closer relationship. Indeed, in 1999 Forrest took the lead in creating a congregation-centered group called TNT--Tying Nashville Together. Harris based the organization on Shelby County's Interfaith Alliance, an organization that reflects the principles of the organizer Saul Alinsky. But while Alinsky was sometimes confrontational, TNT has emphasized cooperation.

The most notable collaboration has come in the field of housing, where the group has worked closely with the city to develop affordable units. The city is working with other religious organizations, too. Nashville currently has one of the largest Habitat for Humanity building programs in the country. Nearly half of the nonprofit organizations that develop affordable housing in the city are faith- based, and the number is growing fast.

"When we think about doing things here with affordable housing, community development or planning in general," says Hank Helton, Nashville's director of affordable housing, "partnerships with the faith community really have become part of the book of business for the city."

John Buntin
John Buntin  |  staff writer
jbuntin@governing.com  | 

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